Eden Revisited

"Hey Killian," Adam greeted me absently as I walked into the family room. I smiled at him as I flopped backwards onto the comfortable old sofa. Adam was working at his desk; the family room doubled as Adam's unofficial home office. He ran a graphics design business from home. I often came in here to read when we were alone in the house. It was a cozy wood paneled little room with a recliner and a sofa facing an entertainment center. Framed photographs were everywhere. Adam's computer desk took up one corner.

 I watched him work for a few minutes before cracking open the book in my hands. It was by my one of my newest favorite authors, Lynn Flewelling. It was a great book but I seemed unable to focus, so I set it aside and let my mind wander. I looked over the bank of pictures on the table nearest me. There was one of me with Kane, Adam's son and my little brother in every sense but biological. Adam had taken me in at a very vulnerable time in both our lives. He'd just lost his oldest son, Kane's older brother Seth, and I'd been forcibly evicted from my home by my father after he found out I was gay. Adam had quickly become a father to me in a way my birth father had never been.

 Next to the picture of Kane and me was a picture of Seth. There were more of Seth on the entertainment center, one from almost every stage of growth from sturdy little toddler to graceful young teen. They stopped abruptly at age sixteen. Just thinking about his murder caused a lump to rise up in my throat. I quickly moved on in my visual tour.

 The next picture to catch my eye was one of Adam and his partner Steve. They were standing on the beach, their arms thrown casually around each other's waists, laughing at something someone had said. It was a great candid shot. I smiled as I looked at it. It was nice to have such a great couple as an example. I thought of my boyfriend Micah and my smile widened even more. Almost everything I knew about having a healthy, happy relationship I'd learned from Adam and Steve. As I thought about my relationship with Micah, it suddenly occurred to me that I knew almost nothing about Adam and Steve's relationship before I came along. I didn't know how or where they'd met, what their first date had been like...nothing. In fact, now that I thought about it, I knew very little about Adam's life before me. I knew he'd been married; I'd had the dubious pleasure of meeting his ex-wife Eve a few times. I'd heard Adam comment once that Seth and Kane were the only two good things to come out of his marriage to Eve. Beyond that, however, I knew next to nothing.

 "Hey Adam?" I asked. He stopped clicking away at the computer and turned towards me. "Are you at a place where you can take a break?"

 He shrugged. "Sure, why not? What's on your mind?"

 "Nothing earth shattering. I just realized that I don't know that much about you."

 He gave me a funny look. "Don't know much about me? We've been living together for two years!"

 "No, I mean I don't know much about your life before I moved in with you. I know you used to be married to Eve, and I know you're not originally from this area, but that's all I really know. I mean, I don't know what happened with Eve, besides the obvious fact that you're gay. But that really just confuses me more. Why'd you even marry her in the first place? And I don't know how you ended up here on the Eastern Shore, and I don't know how you met Steve..."

 "Whoa, slow down there, kiddo," Adam laughed. "One thing at a time. You sound like you're on a case and I'm a witness to be interrogated."

 I laughed too. "I'm just curious."

 "What brought all this on?"

 "I don't know, my mind just started wandering and this is where I ended up."

 "You might want to be careful letting your mind wander like that; one of these days it might decide to not come back." I made a face and he chuckled, but he quickly grew serious. "So you want to know my life story, huh?"

 "I do. If you don't mind telling me that is..."

 He waved that idea away as he stood up and joined me on the couch. "If I'm going to tell you my story I might as well be comfortable," he said. Without even thinking, I snuggled up next to him like a little kid awaiting a bedtime tale. He smiled and ruffled my hair.

 "Oh wow, where to begin?" he asked himself.

* * *
 I grew up in a very small town in Western Maryland. It was in the foothills of the mountains and everyone knew everyone. Things were very different than they are today. Now, there are gay people everywhere - on TV, in movies, in magazines. You're surrounded by it. Even if you live in some backwoods hillbilly town, Will & Grace comes to your house at least once a week. When I was a teenager, I didn't know one single person who was gay. I'd heard of it, of course, but only as an object of derision, something awful to be avoided at all costs.

 Looking back now, I guess I was always attracted to my male friends. It just wasn't something I could acknowledge then, even to myself. If I was ever aware of it on any level, it was just something to be ignored or overcome. I graduated high school and went off to college. What a shock that was. It was like a different world. This was the late 70's, right at the end of the free love movement and before AIDS rocked the world. I was a small-town boy; I was horrified, and more than a little fascinated by what I saw going on around me, but too afraid to do anything more than observe.

 For a while, my roommate Bruce was my only friend. He eventually started dragging me along when he went out to spend time with his friends and they became my friends by default. I realize now that I had a crush on Bruce. I practically worshipped him. He seemed to be everything I wanted to be: suave, worldly, and confident. One of the girls in our group, her name was Naomi, had it bad for Bruce, but he never made any time for her. I think she figured out that I had a crush on him, because she suddenly came up with the idea that it should be the group's mission to find me a girlfriend. At the time, I never quite understood her obsession with finding me a girl. It wasn't as if I was the only guy in the group who was single. In fact, Bruce was single too, but I guess Naomi already had someone in mind for him.

 They set me up on a few blind dates, all of which turned out disastrously, as those things tend to do. Then Naomi found someone who was destined for me, according to her at least. I refused to meet her at first, but Naomi kept insisting. When I asked why she was so sure we were destined for each other, she would only reply vaguely that we had a lot in common and I would understand when I met her. Finally, I gave in and agreed to go on a date with Naomi's mystery girl, even though she wouldn't even tell me her name.

 It turned out to be Eve. Naomi thought the fact that we were named Adam and Eve was terrible cute and wonderful. Much to my surprise, the date wasn't as disastrous as the others had been. We actually did have some things in common and we enjoyed talking. Eve was quite pretty -- tiny and delicate with deep red hair that reached past her waist.

 For some reason, Eve fell for me pretty hard. To this day, I don't understand why. I don't know what she saw in me, an awkward, skinny kid with bushy red hair, and no idea how the world worked. Left on my own, I would have never pursued anything with her, but she went after me like a starving dog after a T-bone steak. We started dating; meanwhile my crush on Bruce just kept growing.

 I'd been dating Eve for a few months when Bruce came back to our dorm room late one night, high as a kite. He was making so much noise he woke me up and I sat up in bed. When he saw I was awake, he came over and sat on my bed. He just stared at me for a long time; neither of us said anything. I didn't know what to say and he seemed content just to sit there smiling.

 Finally, he said, "I know you want me." It wasn't a challenge, just a simple statement of fact. I started stuttering, tripping all over my tongue in my rush to deny that I had any feelings for him other than friendship. He shut me up by leaning over and kissing me. I was so shocked I didn't even kiss him back; I just sat there like a lump. After a short while, he stopped long enough to tell me if I didn't start kissing him back he was going to bed. So I kissed him back. We ended up making love. It was my first time with anyone, male or female. Afterwards, he crawled into his bed and passed out. I was awake for the rest of the night, trying to figure out what exactly had happened.

 The next morning he acted as if nothing had ever happened. I was crushed, but I didn't dare bring it up. It was never mentioned again. Bruce and Naomi started dating not long after that and I spent the rest of my freshmen year pining after Bruce while dating Eve.

 Eve and I dated through the summer and into the next school year. By then I'd come to realization that I'd really enjoyed what had happened between Bruce and me. I discreetly began to seek out other guys like me. They weren't hard to find. I began to have sexual encounters, one-night stands, with random guys. It's a miracle I didn't catch AIDS, remember this was before the safe-sex movement, but I guess God was watching out for at least one young idiot.

 I kept up my double life for months and no one ever suspected anything. And then I met Abe. He wasn't like the other guys I'd hooked up with, he was sweet and sensitive, and we ended up talking through the whole night. I saw him again, the only guy I'd ever been with more than once at that time. I started falling for him and the next thing I knew, we were dating. I was dating two people at the same time, Abe secretly and Eve openly. Obviously, it couldn't last. Abe began to get very jealous of Eve. He wanted me to break things off with her and come out; he was tired of hiding our relationship. It eventually led up to a huge fight. I'll never forget it...

* * *
 "I'm so sick of this," Abe yelled as he paced back and forth across the mangy piece of shag carpeting he'd laid on the floor of his dorm room.

 "What do you want me to do?" I argued. "I'm not ready for people to know about me."

 "You're ashamed of us."

 "No I'm not!"

 "You are or it wouldn't matter if people knew about you. Do you know how much it hurts to see you on campus with that bitch? She doesn't even know I exist. None of your friends know I exist. I can't even talk to you in public. For God's sake, I'm your fucking dirty little secret. How do you think that makes me feel?"

 "I'm sorry," I said through the tears.

 "Great, you're sorry - now what are you going to do about it?"

 "I-I don't know."

 "Do I matter to you?"

 "You know you do."

 "How would I know? Because you sleep with me when we're alone?"

 "Because I love you!"

 That stopped him for a moment. I'd never said that to him before. I'd never said it to anyone before.

 He recovered and continued, his voice gentler now. "I love you too, Adam. I really do. But if you're not willing to be open about our relationship, I don't think I can continue this."

 "You-you're breaking up with me?" I asked disbelievingly.

 "Adam, I deserve better than this. You deserve better than this. Come back once you figure out what you want." He opened his door and stood waiting for me to leave.

 "We can't...I don't...I want you," I sobbed.

 "Then break things off with Eve," he said quietly.

 Panic filled my chest, "I...I can't."

 He shrugged, pain filling his eyes and finally spilling over into tears. "Then go. I hope you figure things out, but I can't wait forever. Maybe I'll still be here when you do, and maybe I won't. Goodbye, Adam."

* * *
 I fled from his room and cried until I couldn't cry anymore. I stayed in my room for the next several days, not even leaving to go to class. Eve kept after me to tell her what was wrong but I refused to talk about it. I replayed my last conversation with Abe over and over in my head. Finally, I decided that he was right and that I couldn't stand to lose him. I made up my mind to tell Eve. I got up and showered and went outside for the first time in days. As I stepped out, the first thing I noticed was an ambulance sitting outside Abe's dorm building. The usual group of rubberneckers had gathered around like vultures. I walked over as casually as I could and asked a red-eyed bystander what was going on.

 "One of the residents killed himself," the girl sniffled.

 A cold feeling crept into my heart. I didn't want to ask, but I had to know. I forced myself to speak, "Who?"

 "I don't know his name," she told me.

 I began to ask everyone standing around, but no one seemed to know who it was who had committed suicide. Just then, one of the paramedics came out and I grabbed his arm.

 "Who is it?" I asked, barely masking the panic I was feeling.

 "I can't release that..." The guy started to refuse to tell me but something in my eyes must have changed his mind. "His name is Abel Hess. Did you know him?"

 I nodded woodenly, hoping this was all some sort of sick joke. "How?" I whispered.

 The guy's eyes filled with compassion and it was all I could do not to fall apart right there. "Drug overdose. It was probably accidental, there was no note." He patted me roughly on the shoulder and climbed into the ambulance, leaving me alone with my grief. I knew it wasn't an accident; Abe didn't take drugs. I walked back to my room in a state of shock. I sat for hours just staring out the window. I didn't fall apart until late that night, after everyone else was asleep. I went back to classes the next day, pretending as if nothing ever happened. But at night, alone in the secrecy of my bed, I grieved Abe's death. My roommate had to know something was going on, but we weren't close and he didn't bother asking.

 I continued dating Eve. She was safe. I knew that I was gay; there was no denying it by then, not even to myself. I also knew that I never wanted to hurt as badly as I had with Abe. If that was love, then I didn't need it. I still got along great with Eve; we were friends. I convinced myself that it would be enough, that it was better this way. If I didn't care deeply for her, I couldn't be deeply hurt. It never occurred to me if that was fair to Eve or not, I was in self-protection mode, still grieving deeply over Abe.

 The next two years passed by quickly. I stopped seeing guys after Abe, not even random hook-ups. The day before we graduated, I proposed to Eve and she accepted. We were married a few months later. In all the time we'd been dating, we'd never slept together. To Eve, the idea of saving yourself for your wedding night was very romantic and old-fashioned. For me, it was simply a matter of not being interested. Before Abe, I'd had other sexual outlets that interested me a lot more. After Abe, well, I just wasn't interested in sex.

 Our wedding night was...uneventful. I couldn't get an erection. Eve was not amused, but I passed it off as nerves. The next night I knew I had to perform, so I did the only thing I could think of, I pretended I was with Abe. It worked, but later that night, after Eve fell asleep, I cried myself to sleep.

 I went through the next couple years in a sort of fog. I was miserable and Eve couldn't help but notice. Things became very tense between us; we were fighting more and more. She always had to initiate sex and even then, more often than not, it was a repeat of our wedding night. I had just about decided to ask her for a separation when she shocked me with the news that she was pregnant. I was furious at first; I didn't understand how she could have gotten pregnant when she was supposed to be on the pill. She told me that it wasn't 100%; that it sometimes failed. To this day, I believe she got pregnant on purpose in an attempt to keep me from leaving. If so, it worked. I stayed with her. I couldn't leave the woman who was carrying my child. For a while, during the pregnancy and right after Seth was born, things got better between us. We didn't fight as much, and Eve was one of those lucky women whom pregnancy really agrees with.

 It was too good to last, though, and by the time Seth was a year old we were fighting even more than before. We figured it had worked the first time, so we'd try it again. But we were trying this time and predictably, we had a very hard time. It took months, but finally she told me she was pregnant again. We went though the whole process, and just like before, it seemed to make a real difference. By the time Kane was born, we were doing better than we'd ever done.  It probably helped that I got a great job with a computer firm in DC around that same time and I started spending long hours at the office. When I got home at night, Eve was so tired after spending all day alone with two babies that she didn't have enough energy to initiate sex or start a fight. I fell into a routine in which I found myself content, if not really happy.

 Again, it couldn't last forever. As the boys got older and Eve found herself with more time on her hands, the old fights started up again. I loved the boys with all my heart and couldn't imagine losing them. I knew there was no way Eve would let me see them if I left her now, so I made an effort. We went to marriage counseling. I knew full well what the problem was, but it was a secret I couldn't tell. I tried as hard as I could to be a good husband and father, but I found myself sinking steadily into depression. I began to withdraw from Eve and the boys, spending more and more time at the office, even spending the night there at times. It went on like this for years. I'd pretty much resigned myself to this life.

 All that changed when we got new neighbors. Grant and Lydia Marsh moved in next door to us and Lydia and Eve quickly became friends. I was forced to play the happy husband at dinner parties and backyard barbecues. At first, I resented it, but it wasn't long before I came to enjoy them just as much, if not more, than Eve. Lydia was a quiet woman, kind and generous, but never had much to say. Grant, on the other hand, was very gregarious. He was a natural flirt and he flirted with everyone - men and women equally. He was a also very easy on the eyes and I soon felt myself responding to him in a way I hadn't with anyone since Abe died.

 My reactions to Grant didn't escape Eve's notice. It became a new bone of contention between us. Eve insisted his behavior was inappropriate and I argued that it was just his manner. It all came to a head one night after a cocktail party. I'd had a little too much to drink and for once, when Grant started flirting with me, I gave as good as I got.

* * *
 "That was disgusting!" Eve raged as soon as the last of our friends had left.

 "What?" I'd blinked in surprise. I wasn't quite drunk, but I was very, very close.

 "That whole scene with Grant."

 "Oh come on, Eve."

 "No, it was embarrassing, Adam. It's bad enough that he has to act like that. I always feel so sorry for Lydia, and now I know what it feels like to have your husband act like a fool in public."

 "I didn't act like a fool! We were just playing around. And besides, Lydia never seems to care. Half the time, she just plays along." It was true. I'd never seen Lydia seem the least bit bothered by Grant's flirtatiousness.

 "Well that's just great for Lydia," Eve snapped, "I'm not Lydia and it bothers me."

 "Why? You know we're just joking."

 "Do I?"

 I froze. "What is that supposed to mean?"

 "Give me a little credit here. I see the way you act when Grant's around. You light up whenever he walks into the room. You're like a school girl with a crush."

 "I'm not!"

 "You've never acted like that around me."

 "What are you trying to say?"

 "I'm not trying to say anything. I'm saying I think you want to fuck Grant Marsh."

 I was so shocked I didn't know what to say. The first words that came to my mind slipped out my mouth before I had time to weigh their impact. "Maybe I do."

 The change in Eve's face was horrifying. She'd been angry before, but now her features slowly contorted with hatred. She began to tremble as her face grew red. I was actually afraid that she was going to have a heart attack. I took a step towards her when she suddenly erupted in an ear-shattering scream. I cringed as she leapt into action, hurling every loose object at me she could reach, all the while screaming incoherently.

 Vases and knick-knacks exploded around me as words began to emerge from her rage-induced frenzy.

 "Get out!" she screamed, "You disgust me! Get out now!"

 "Eve..." I tried to reason with her, but I had to duck quickly as a heavy brass paperweight narrowly missed my head.

 "Get out! Get out! GET OUT!"

 Suddenly, the boys were all I could think about. "Eve, we can work through this, think of the children."

 "I don't even want you near the children," she snarled. "God you make me sick. All these years I wondered why I wasn't good enough for you and now I understand. You're a goddamned faggot. I want you out now and I never want to see you again."

 "Mommy?" a frightened voice called out, bringing a sudden halt to her barrage.

 We turned to see a wide-eyed Kane staring at us -- confusion and fear written plainly on his young face.

 "What's going on?" he asked anxiously.

 I caught a flash of movement behind him and I knew Seth was awake too. How much had they heard? I wondered. Kane, at nine, was probably too young to understand what Eve had been screaming. Seth was twelve though; he'd know what a faggot was. 

 "Go back to bed, sweetie," I said as calmly as I could. "Mommy and I are having a disagreement. It'll be ok."

 His huge eyes took in the ravaged room and he looked to Eve for confirmation. She was still trembling with rage and hurt, but she held her tongue and gave him a shaky nod. He turned reluctantly and started back for his room.

 "You too, Seth," I called.

 I listened for the sound of two doors shutting, turning back to Eve only when I was sure they were in their rooms.

 "Eve, they don't need to hear all this," I began when she cut me off with a harsh slap across the face.

 I was stunned. I'd never been struck in my life.

 "Don't speak to me about what they do and don't need to hear," she hissed. "You no longer have the right. I want you out of my house right now."

 "Eve..."

 "Now."

 "We need to talk..."

 Without any warning, she threw herself at me and began to pummel me with her fists. I didn't fight back, even when she connected solidly with my lip, splitting it against my teeth. Some part of me felt as if I deserved her abuse. The whole time she struck me she kept up a litany, "Get out! I hate you! Get out!"

 I finally managed to disentangle myself from her flailing arms. I opened the front door and looked back at her. She was gripping her arms tightly around her sides, fighting back the sobs that were threatening to consume her.

 "Go..." she gasped raggedly.

 I turned and walked out. Once on the front lawn, I didn't know where to go. My first thought was the office, but I didn't want to be alone right then. I thought of Grant and Lydia and walked unsteadily next door. My knock was answered by a startled looking Lydia.

 "Oh my God, Adam. Come in!"

 Her tone of voice brought Grant rushing. He came to an abrupt stop when he saw my bloody, battered face.

 "Shit!" he exclaimed. "What happened?"

 "Eve threw me out," I said, uncomfortable with saying more.

 "What?" they gasped in unison.

 "We had a fight, she kicked me out."

 "Eve did this to you?" Lydia asked, touching my face gingerly.

 "Yes," I responded tersely.

 "Is she...ok?" she asked hesitantly.

 "I didn't touch her, if that's what you're asking," I said through gritted teeth. It had been a mistake to come here, I suddenly realized. I barely knew these people. We were casual acquaintances and that was all, reliable guests for a dinner party. Grant's flirting was just what I'd always told Eve it was - nothing more than an especially outgoing personality. "I'm sorry," I said. "I shouldn't have come here." I turned to leave but a strong hand caught my arm.

 "No, you were right in coming here," Grant said gently. He and Lydia exchanged a look and she nodded slightly.

 "I'll go check on Eve," she said. "I'll probably stay the night there. Adam, why don't you stay here for tonight?"

 "I couldn't..." I protested.

 "Yes, you could," Grant said with finality.

 Lydia let herself out and Grant inspected my face more closely.

 "Wow. She really did a number on you, buddy," he said softly. "You didn't try to stop her?"

 "No," I answered simply.

 He looked into my eyes and I thought I saw a hint of understanding - and maybe something more - but then he turned his head and whatever it was I thought I'd seen was gone. It was just wishful thinking, I told myself.

 "Come on, we need to get you cleaned up," Grant said as he walked away, expecting me to follow. He led me into a bedroom that I assumed he shared with Lydia. I'd never been in here before and took a moment to look around. To my surprise, it was decorated in a very masculine style; sparse furniture and dark colors. It even had a decidedly masculine smell, slightly musky but pleasant.

 "This is my room," he said to me, noticing my surprise.

 "You sleep separately?" I blurted out, and then realized how rude that was and blushed. "I'm sorry; it's none of my business."

 "It's ok. We have separate rooms, but we don't always sleep separately. It just works for us." I nodded. "Have a seat on the bed," he told me. "I'll be right back."

 He went through another door that I assumed led into a bathroom. I sat uncertainly on the edge of Grant's bed and looked at myself in the mirror over his dresser. There was a surprising amount of blood on my face. No wonder Lydia had seemed so shocked when she opened the door. I wouldn't have blamed her if she'd screamed and slammed it in my face. Besides my split lip, there seemed to be several small cuts, probably from her rings, or possibly from flying shrapnel. One over my eye was bleeding very profusely.

 Grant reappeared a few moments later carrying a small basin, a washcloth, some gauze, and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. He set it all carefully on the bed beside me and then crouched down on his heels in front of me. For the first time, I realized what he was wearing. He'd taken off the jacket and button-down shirt he'd worn to our house earlier. It left him in just a white wife-beater that clung most appealingly to his toned body. Thankfully, his jeans were still on, although he was barefoot. I tore my eyes away from his chest and looked into his eyes. I couldn't read his expression.

 He dipped the washcloth into the basin, which turned out to hold warm water, and very gently began to wipe the blood from my face.

 "Grant, I can do this," I said quickly. "I've interrupted your night enough..."

 My voice faded away at the look he gave me. He rinsed the cloth and wiped away more of the blood without a word. I couldn't take my eyes off of him. His tender touch was stirring something in me that had long been dormant and I had to struggle not to become aroused.

 After he'd cleaned the blood away, he soaked a piece of gauze in the hydrogen peroxide and dabbed carefully at the cuts. I hissed a little at the sting and his eyes found mine.

 "They're not as bad as they looked," he said quietly.

 "I guess I'm just a wimp," I said with a shaky smile.

 "I didn't say that."

 He stood up and gathered up the supplies. "I'm going to get a bandage. That cut over your eye won't stop bleeding." He disappeared back into the bathroom while I sat awkwardly on the edge of the bed. He returned quickly with a plastic bandage. He applied it carefully to the cut on my forehead, then let his hand gently drift down my face. I looked up at him, startled.

 "I'm sorry, Adam," he whispered.

 "Sorry?" I asked in confusion.

 "I feel as if I'm partly to blame for this."

 "You? How?"

 "I knew you were attracted to me and I kept on flirting."

 It seemed to be a night for stunning announcements. "You knew?" I gasped when I found my voice again.

 He nodded.

 "But...how?"

 "It was pretty obvious." He sat down beside me on the bed, a little too close for my comfort. "Adam, I'm bisexual."

 I felt as if my eyes would bulge out of my head. "Lydia...?"

 "Lydia knows. She knew when we got married. She's ok with it. She knows I love her more than anything. She also knows that sometimes I need to be with a man."

 "But...I...you..."

 "As I'm sure you've noticed, I flirt indiscriminately. My flirting with you started out innocently enough. When I realized that you were attracted to me, I played it up a little. I mean, I was flattered. You're a very attractive man, Adam."

 "I-I am?"

 "Yes, you are. Lydia thought I should leave you alone, but I couldn't seem to help it. I'm sorry if it confused you."

 "It...it didn't confuse me. I've known I was gay since college."

 "You're gay?" It was his turn to be surprised.

 I nodded.

 "And you knew in college?" I nodded again. "Yet you married Eve?"

 "It's a long story," I sighed. "Eve never knew I was gay, but we had problems right from the beginning. We almost separated once, but then there was Seth, and then later Kane. I felt trapped. Eventually, we fell into an uneasy truce."

 "Obviously, the truce ended tonight," Grant said, reaching out to touch the bandage. "What happened?"

 "You happened," I gave him a weak smile.

 "So it was my fault," he said sadly.

 "No," I said quickly, twisting to face him. "All you did was remind me of what could be. You awakened a part of me that I've tried to deny for too long."

 He reached out again and gently stroked my cheek. I felt a shiver of anticipation run through my body. He slowly brought his face closer to mine, holding my eyes with his own until they closed as our lips met. He was ever so gentle at first, so gentle I almost opened my eyes to see if I was really kissing him. I felt his tongue brush against my lips and I knew I wasn't just imagining this. Our kiss grew more passionate as his arms slid around my body. As his mouth grew more insistent, my lip began to hurt where I'd split it, but I ignored the pain, considering it fair trade for the pleasure that was coursing through my body after long absence.

 He slowly lowered me onto the bed and rolled over onto me, his lips never once leaving mine. We kissed for a few minutes, working both of us into a state of intense arousal. I moaned in frustration when he suddenly pulled away and sat up. My disappointment was short lived as I watched him pull his shirt over his head. I'd never seen Grant without a shirt and I greedily took him in. It was obvious that he worked out. His naturally smooth chest was well defined and his abs looked as hard as a rock. I ran my hands over his stomach and through the light treasure trail that disappeared into his jeans. He tugged impatiently at my shirt and I allowed him to slide it over my head.

 I was suddenly self-conscious. I was nowhere near as built as Grant. Not to say that I was flabby. I was trim, but it had been a long time since I'd been to a gym. Grant just ran his hands lightly over my chest and I gasped. It felt like electricity coursing over my skin. He lowered himself back down and we once more began to kiss, our hands all over each other's bodies. It wasn't long before we were both naked, our bodies entangled. Much to my embarrassment, I didn't last long; it had been too long since I'd been this sexually excited. Grant was very understanding and quickly set me at ease, telling me I'd last longer next time. We fell asleep in each other's arms.

 The next morning, I woke up to an empty bed and the sounds of arguing from outside my room. I quickly distinguished Grant's voice, but it took me a second to recognize Lydia. I'd never heard her speak with anything but a meek, shy voice. She didn't sound shy now.

 "I can't believe you slept with him!" she was shouting.

 Grant responded in a softer tone so I couldn't quite make out his words except for the sound of his "Shh."

 "I don't care how much he thought he wanted it, you took advantage of him. He was in no shape to be making a decision like that. And besides, we didn't talk about it first; you swore to me that we'd always talk about it first."

 "I thought that it was implied when you left," Grant shot back, a little louder now as he became defensive.

 "Oh for God's sake! How was that implied? You've wanted him ever since we met them. You saw your chance and you took it, end of story."

 "Lydia..."

 "Don't Lydia me. I've seen the way you two flirted. I didn't blame Adam; he was in an unhappy marriage and so deep in the closet he couldn't even find the door. You on the other hand..."

 "You knew I was bisexual when we got married."

 "That's right; throw that in my face again. You know what? I've bent over backwards for you trying to make this marriage work. I agreed to your boys on the side, I looked the other way when you thought I didn't know about the ones you forgot to ask about, I ignored your blatant flirting when I was standing right there, but I've had enough. Being bisexual has nothing to do with it. I've never had a problem with you being bisexual; to me, it's just another sexuality."

 "We've talked about this; I need a man to be satisfied sexually."

 "All that tells me is that I'm not enough for you. If you need a man so goddamned badly, go find yourself one, because I'm not sticking around anymore."

 "Lydia!"

 "Goodbye."

 I heard a door slam followed by footsteps coming my way. I squeezed my eyes shut and pretended to be asleep. The door opened and I sensed Grant standing over the bed watching me sleep. I felt his hand touch my chest and I jumped, my eyes flying open.

 "Hey, it's just me," he said with a smile. Looking at him, you'd never know his wife had just walked out on him. Maybe this happened all the time with them. "I didn't mean to wake you. You just looked so sexy lying there."

 "What time is it?" I asked.

 "A little before seven," he said as he sat on the edge of the bed next to me.

 I was feeling very uncomfortable now about what we'd done the night before, especially after hearing Lydia's tirade. Grant sensed this and said, "Relax. It's ok."

 I wanted to ask him about Lydia, but I didn't want him to know I'd been eavesdropping. He began to trace circles lightly on my chest, my skin tingling and burning wherever his fingers touched. He slowly moved his hand lower and lower and my body responded quite against my will. He saw the tent he'd caused and smiled at me, leaning in to kiss me. I turned my head at the last minute, unable to take it any longer.

 "What about Lydia?" I asked.

 His hand stopped. "You heard all that?"

 I nodded guiltily.

 He grimaced. "Sorry about that. I guess we weren't very quiet. Don't sweat it. This happens pretty regularly. She'll cool down and we'll work it out."

 "What if you don't?"

 He gave me a lopsided smile. "Then we'll be bachelors together."

 I frowned. "I need to get up and get ready for work," I said, but I didn't move. His hand had once again picked up its lazy circling. This time when he leaned in to kiss me I didn't turn away.

 It was another forty-five minutes before I finally made it into the shower; I was going to be late to work. As I stepped out of the shower, I quickly realized that I didn't have any clean clothes. I walked out in a towel to find Grant sprawled naked on the bed.

 "I don't have any clothes," I told him.

 "What time does Eve leave for work?" he asked.

 "Right after the kids get on the school bus, which should be any time." I went to the window and pushed the curtain aside. Seth was standing on the sidewalk with his back to me, but I didn't have to see his face to know he was upset. His body language spoke clearly. His arms were crossed tightly over his chest and his back was rigid with anger. As if sensing my gaze, he suddenly turned around and looked directly at me. His stony expression softened a bit when our eyes met. I waved and he gave me a small wave in return. The bus pulled up just then and he turned reluctantly to board. The bus idled as it waited for Kane to come barreling out of the house. He was late almost every morning. Finally, he made it out and the bus pulled away.

 I waited a few more minutes until I saw Eve's car back out of the driveway, then I quickly dressed in yesterday's clothes and let myself back into my house.

 The mess in the living room had been cleaned up. Except for some missing knickknacks, there was no outward sign of our fight last night. I walked quickly to our bedroom and opened my closet door and stopped in shock. It was empty. Not so much as a necktie in sight. I searched everywhere and finally found them overflowing from the garbage can in the backyard. Luckily, most of them were still clean so I was able to find something to wear. I lugged the rest of the clothes, still in the trashcan, into Grant's garage. My next nasty surprise came when I went to get in my car - my tires had been slashed.

 Angry and embarrassed, I went back to Grant's house and asked for a ride to work. He dropped me off on the way to his workplace.

 I knew something was wrong as soon as I walked into the office. I shared a workspace with several other people, our desk areas separated by shoulder height dividers. None of them would make eye contact with me as I entered.

 I greeted everyone and got a few nods, but still no one would look directly at me. What did Eve do now? I wondered with a rising feeling of dread.

 I turned on my computer and waited for it to start. As soon as I opened my email account, my stomach dropped. There was a company-wide email sent from my address late last night. I knew it hadn't come from me, so that meant Eve had sent it from my home computer. I didn't want to read it, but I knew I had to know what it said.

 "Attention!" It started off in bold letters. "Adam Connelly is a cheating, perverted faggot."

 I sat and stared disbelievingly at the words on my screen. How could she do this? The sheer nastiness of it shocked me. Who was this woman? Could she be the same person I'd lived with all these years? Sure, we'd had our problems, but there'd never been any signs that she could be this malicious.

 "Adam?" My thoughts were interrupted by the voice of my supervisor. I quickly closed the email before realizing how useless it was since he'd doubtlessly seen it already. Red-faced, I turned to face him.

 "Could I see you in my office for a minute?" He looked very serious. I simply nodded and followed him into his office, where he shut the door before sitting down behind his desk. He didn't offer me a seat, so I remained standing.

 "Would you please explain this?" he asked as he slid a printout of the vindictive email across the surface of his desk.

 I blushed even hotter. "I'm sorry, sir," I said as calmly as I could manage. "My wife and I are having some personal problems and she sent that out last night after an argument."

 "Adam, your personal problems have no business in the office. I've had calls this morning from almost every department. Please have a talk with your wife and make sure she understands that this is not acceptable."

 "Yes sir, I will."

 He nodded dismissively and I turned to go, hoping that this would be the end of it, at least as far as my company was concerned.

 "Oh, and Adam?" he said, stopping me at the door. "I hope for your sake that her allegation of your sexuality was just said in the heat of the moment."

 I turned slowly to face him. "Excuse me?" I asked. I couldn't believe I had heard him correctly.

 "Don't get offended, I'm sure that was just her way of trying to hurt you. It's not like anyone really believes it. I'm just saying that we wouldn't look kindly on that lifestyle here. You're a good worker; I'd hate to have to let you go."

 I couldn't believe what I was hearing. He'd just threatened to fire me if I was gay. I'd heard homophobic comments bandied about around the water cooler before, but it was shocking to hear it directly from your boss. Of course, this was well before the anti-discrimination laws, so there was no recourse. I just turned numbly and let myself out of his office.

 I walked back to my workstation and sat down. I stared blankly at my computer screen, not really seeing it, but instead worrying over my situation like a dog gnawing a bone.

 "Hey Connelly," Mike, my neighbor to the left, said in a low voice. I turned to find him peering around the cubical wall. He was a slightly younger man who I'd always found very attractive. He was tall with sandy blonde hair and dark brown eyes. "It's not true is it? That email?" He looked decidedly uncomfortable. His eyes were clearly pleading with me to deny the allegation.

 I stood up and took in the rest of my coworkers. Not a single person was even pretending to work. They were all waiting for my answer.

 I'd worked with some of these people for years. None of us were very close; we never socialized outside office functions. I didn't even know for sure who was married or, if they were, their spouses' names. It had never occurred to me to wonder about their sexuality, and it wouldn't have mattered to me if it had. Yet now, their collective opinion of me hinged on my answer to the question "was I gay?"

 Suddenly, I couldn't stand it anymore. I didn't owe these people an explanation. I felt like screaming at them to mind their own business. I knew I wouldn't be getting any work done today. Without any response to Mike, I crossed the room and knocked on my boss's door.

 "Come in," he called.

 I opened the door just enough to stick my head in. "Given the circumstances, I think I need to take the day off to get things settled," I told him. "I'm taking a personal day." I withdrew and shut the door, not giving him a chance to respond. I was in the parking lot before I remembered that I didn't have a car.

 It was the last straw; I sagged against the wall and gave in to my emotions, crying softly and wondering what I would do now.

 "Adam?" someone said from close by. I jumped away from the wall and wiped at my face, trying to erase the evidence of my tears. I spotted Ellen, the office secretary standing in the doorway. She eyed me worriedly. "Are you ok?" she asked.

 "Just fine," I said through gritted teeth.

 "You seemed really upset when you left," she said hesitantly. Ellen was a very nice middle-aged black woman; one of those people you seldom notice because they're so quiet and just get along with everybody. She was kind enough now not to mention the fact that she'd just caught me crying in the parking lot.

 "I have a lot going on right now," I said simply, hoping it would be enough.

 "Adam, I just want you to know that even if that email was true, it wouldn't matter to me." She paused. "My brother is gay."

 I squeezed my eyes shut and wished I could wake up and discover that this was all just a nightmare. I opened them again to find Ellen still standing there, looking at me expectantly. She was waiting for me to say something.

 I sighed. "Too bad everyone else doesn't feel the same way," I said.

 She nodded sympathetically. "They're a bunch of bigots. Trust me; I know firsthand. They would love to fire the nigger woman, but I'm protected by law. You don't even have that protection."

 I looked her squarely in the eye. "I never said I was gay, Ellen."

 "You never said you weren't either," she said gently. "Besides, I already suspected. If you know what to look for, the signs are clear." Then in answer to the question in my eyes, she continued. "You never look at the female workers like the other men, even when they wear short skirts or tight shirts. On the other hand, you do look at the men, especially Mike." I blushed. I hadn't known I was that obvious. Had anyone else noticed? "Honey, don't be embarrassed. If there's one thing I've learned from my brother, it's that you can't help who you love. If you need someone to talk to, I can give you his phone number."

 I shook my head no. "Thank you, Ellen, but I don't think so."

 "Just let me know if you change your mind." She started to leave, then stopped. "You know, I think you're the only man who works here who has never made a racist or sexist comment to me."

 "Why haven't you sued them for harassment or discrimination?"

 She shrugged. "My job is worth too much to me; I'm making good money. Besides, it would be my word against theirs. It's just too much trouble. You choose your battles." She went inside, leaving me alone and still without a ride.

 I went to a nearby gas station and called a cab. While I waited, I wondered where I'd have it take me. I was no longer welcome at my home and my job was uncertain. In less than twenty-four hours, my entire life had been turned upside down. Where did I go from here?

 For lack of a better option, I told the cab driver to take me home. I was relieved to find that my crippled car was the only one in the driveway. I wasn't up to dealing with Eve at the moment. I let myself inside, wondering how long it would be before she thought to change the locks. I decided to use the opportunity to get the things I wanted before she went that far.

 I found a small box in our storage room and began putting some photographs of the boys in it. I added some personal odds and ends and then retrieved some files from the desk. I stood in the middle of the living room trying to think if there was anything else when suddenly the tears came back.

 Is it worth it? I asked myself. Is it worth losing my family just to be myself? I'd created this situation when I married Eve. I'd known I was gay even then. This was all my fault. Didn't I owe it to my kids to be there for them? I decided that nothing was worth losing my boys. Who cares if I'm unhappy? I'd been unhappy for so long I should be used to it by now. I would wait here for Eve to get home and we'd talk it out. We'd worked through things in the past; this was just a different challenge, albeit a much larger one than we'd ever faced before.

 I quickly took the box out and stashed it in the trunk of my car, just in case Eve wasn't receptive to my overtures. I was sitting in the living room when Eve got home, shortly before the kids were due back from school. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw me.

 "What are you doing here?" she snapped.

 "I wanted to talk to you," I said calmly.

 "I have nothing to say to you. I told you I wanted you out and I never wanted to see you again and that's exactly what I meant."

 "Please, just give me a minute."

 "Why should I? I don't want you here when the boys get home."

 "Eve, we can work though this, I know we can. I'll do whatever you want me to do. I'll get counseling, I'll go to one of those ex-gay things -- whatever you say...I just can't lose the boys."

 "There's nothing to work through, Adam. It's over. I don't want you near the boys. Now you can leave quietly right now or I can call the police and have a restraining order placed on you."

 "What? What the hell are you talking about? You can't have a restraining order placed on me! I haven't done anything! I have a right to see my children."

 "No. You gave up that right. God you make me sick."

 "I can't believe this! I never knew you were so homophobic. It's not like you're religious or anything."

 "This has nothing to do with religion. Now get out!"

 "Eve..."

 "I said get out! If you don't leave now, I'll tell everyone what I found last night."

 "Haven't you already told everyone? The email to my office was a nice touch. You almost lost me my job."

 "You think I care? And that's not what I'm talking about. That was nothing."

 A chill snaked up my spine. "What do you mean?"

 "I went on the computer, Adam," she snarled.

 "So?" A sickening sense of dread was building in my stomach.

 "I found your pictures."

 "Pictures?"

 "Oh for God's sake, don't play dumb. I was so sickened when I saw them I almost threw up. I started to delete them and then I realized I could use them as evidence against you if you tried to pull something like this."

 "My God, Eve. I swear to you, I don't know what you're talking about."

 "Stop it!" she screamed suddenly. "Stop lying to me! You've been fucking lying to me our entire life together." She stormed over to the computer and turned it on. I stayed where I was, my mind traveling so fast I could barely keep up. I still didn't know what she was talking about but it didn't bode well for me. I was trying to remember everything that I had saved on the computer and, for the life of me, I couldn't think of anything at all objectionable. I had purchased it for working at home and seldom used it for anything else. Eve seldom used it at all; I hadn't even realized she was proficient at using it. The boys used it for homework and Seth spent the most time on it.

 While I'd been frantically searching its contents in my head, the computer had loaded up and Eve was now busy searching the files. She stood back and gestured angrily towards the screen. I stepped forward hesitantly, not at all sure I wanted to see what she'd found.

 The file search had turned up a list of image files, most of them jpeg files with a few bmp files thrown in for good measure. Most had numbered file names, but some were named things like youngboycock and hugedick. My slight feeling of dread exploded into full-fledged horror. Where had these come from? I knew I hadn't downloaded them; I'd never been a big fan of pornography. I clicked on one and flinched as the image sprang onto the screen. My stomach lurched as I realized that the boys in the picture couldn't have been too much older than my own sons. It wasn't just pornography -- it was child pornography. I closed the file quickly.

 "Eve, I don't know where these came from," I protested weakly.

 "Oh don't give me that shit," she spat. "I suppose you're going to suggest I downloaded them."

 A cold feeling washed over me. "Is that it?" I asked in a hoarse whisper. "Is that how you're going to play this? You downloaded these pictures just to use them as leverage against me, didn't you?"

 Eve stared at me for a moment, fury and disgust marring her once pretty features. "Get out now, before the boys get home. If you leave now, I won't call the police - but only to spare the boys the embarrassment of finding out their father is a pedophile."

 "I'm not..."

 "Leave! Now!" She reached for the phone.

 "Alright! I'll go. Just...just tell me one thing. What are you going to tell the boys?"

 "I'll tell them whatever I want."

 "Eve...please."

 She glared at me for a few seconds, then heaved a monumentally beleaguered sigh. "What do you want me to tell them Adam? That Daddy likes other men better than Mommy?"

 "Tell them...tell them that I love them, but I had to go away. Tell them that sometimes mommies and daddies stop loving each other..."

 "For God's sake, they know what divorce is; this is the 90's! Everybody is divorced. I'm not going to tell them you stopped loving me though. You never loved me."

 "Eve," I groaned.

 "I'll tell them we're getting a divorce, and that's all they need to know."

 "They'll ask questions..."

 "Then I'll deal with it as it comes up. They'll be here any minute. If you're still here when they get home I'll call the police."

 "Eve, please...can't we..."

 "No. We can't."

 I threw my hands up in defeat and let myself out of the house, thinking that maybe she'd come around in a couple days once she'd had time to cool off.

 She didn't. In fact, if anything, she became even more unreasonable. She wouldn't let me have any contact with the boys, even though I was still staying right next door with Grant and Lydia. Lydia had returned home that same night, just as Grant had predicted. There was now an uneasy tension between the three of us that hadn't been there before. Grant stayed in their shared bedroom after that first night. Things at work continued to go south as well. The only friendly face in the entire office was Ellen, the gay-friendly secretary. The furtive glances and whispered conversations wore heavily on my already frayed nerves. When my boss started hinting that maybe I'd be happier somewhere else, I didn't hesitate to tender my resignation. Between my job situation, the tension between Grant and Lydia, and not seeing the boys, I was quickly plummeting into the deepest depression I'd ever experienced.

 After one more week, Grant sheepishly asked if I could move out. I knew I'd overstayed my welcome and I quickly made arrangements to move into the only place I could afford -- a dingy, one-room apartment on the other side of town. I packed my few belongings into my car, which sported four brand new tires, and drove to my new abode.

 It was an unbearably depressing place. No amount of scrubbing could make it look clean and it was infested with things I didn't even want to think about. I'd only been staying there a few days when Grant dropped in to check on me. I think he was feeling guilty about kicking me out. The horrified look on his face as he walked through the battered door spoke volumes.

 "How can you live here?" he gasped as he took in the squalor.

 "It's all I can afford," I said with a shrug.

 "But you had a good job! You've only been out of work for a week."

 "Eve blocked my access to our joint account. I had a little squirreled away in a separate account that's only in my name, but most of our money was in the joint one. I've already spent most of what I had on replacing the tires and the deposit for this dump. If I don't find a job soon I'll be out on the streets." The truth was, in my depression, I hadn't even been looking for a job.

 "The streets would probably be better than this place," Grant said with disgust. "Hey, I'll look into a few things and see if I can't find you somewhere better to stay. And I'll talk to some friends about getting you a job too."

 "Grant, I appreciate that, but you don't have to go through all that. I'm not your responsibility."

 "I know, but I still feel at least partly to blame for what happened. Just let me see what I can come up with. Ok?"

 I gave him a nod. It was easier to give in than argue. He left soon after, the apartment not being conducive to extended visits.

 I'd pretty much forgotten about his promises when he showed up at my door a few days later. By this time, I'd made a chameleon-like adaptation to my surroundings. I hadn't showered since I'd seen him last, and it was entirely possible that I hadn't even changed my clothes.

 He didn't say a thing; just grabbed my wrist and dragged me into the grungy bathroom. It was barely big enough for the two of us, but he managed to strip me down and get me in the shower, despite my half-hearted protests. Once I was showered and dressed, he told me that he'd found a place for me to stay, but it came with certain conditions.

 "What kind of conditions," I asked suspiciously.

 "I have a very wealthy uncle," he explained. "Well, he's not really my uncle. He was my grandfather's business partner for twenty years. He's an older man and, while he's in great shape for his age, he could use some help around the house."

 "What are suggesting? That I be his houseboy?"

 Grant couldn't help but laugh at that. "Not a houseboy, more of a handy man. In exchange for helping him out with things he can't do anymore, you can stay with him at his house." He must have noticed my doubtful expression. "He's a great guy; I really think you'll like him."

 "What's his name?"

 "Uncle Charlie."

 "Uh huh, and Uncle Charlie won't mind having a gay houseboy?"

 "Handy man, and no, he won't mind at all. Uncle Charlie is gay."

 "Look, Grant, I appreciate you trying to help, but I'm not the handiest man around. I barely know which end of the hammer to use."

 "Well, it really wouldn't be that much of that sort of thing. He can afford to hire someone to do repairs and stuff."

 "Then what will I be doing exactly? I'm not going to have to sleep with him, am I?"

 "No! Nothing like that. Why don't you come with me to meet Uncle Charlie and he can tell you himself?"

 "You're not going to leave me alone until I do, are you?"

 "Nope."

 I sighed. "Then let's get it over with."

 We went in Grant's car since he knew where we were going and I didn't. We headed away from the city and into the countryside. After driving in silence for a while, I asked, "What did you tell him about me?"

 "Not much. I just told him that you were going through a difficult time right now, but you're a really great guy. I didn't go into details."

 I felt a little relief at that. I didn't like the idea of being a charity case, although I suppose that's what it was anyway.

 It wasn't too long before Grant pulled the car into a circular drive that looped around a beautifully landscaped garden.

 "Here we are," he said with a smile in voice.

 "You've got to be kidding me," I said in a low voice as I took in the house.

 "Nope."

 The house would have been better described as a small mansion. It was three stories of brick, built in the mock-Tudor style that had once been all the fashion with the nouveaux riches. The English-style gardens surrounding it were well maintained and lush. It looked like a page from a magazine about the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

 As I was gaping at the house, the front door swung open to reveal a spry little man in jeans and a deep sapphire silk shirt. Grant vaulted out of the car.

 "Uncle Charlie," he called heartily.

 "Grant!" Uncle Charlie brightened as he recognized his visitor. I slowly climbed out of the car and we took each other in as Grant made introductions.

 Uncle Charlie wasn't as old as I'd expected from Grant's admittedly vague description. I wouldn't have placed him past his early 60's, and he looked to be in great shape at that. His hair was snow white, but thick and stylishly cut. He was thin, but not unhealthily so. His handshake was firm and I got the impression that he could easily equal me at most any physical task. I couldn't imagine why he needed someone to stay with him -- unless he really didn't and this was nothing more than Grant's meddling.

 "Come on in," the older man invited us graciously.

 Once seated in an impeccably decorated sitting room with a sweeping view of the rear gardens, Uncle Charlie poured us both glasses of sweetened iced tea, garnished with a sprig of mint. He had a drawling accent and seemed to enjoy playing the role of the perfect Southern gentleman.

 After the niceties were out of the way, he got down to business. "Grant here tells me that you're a little down on your luck and you're in need of a temporary place to stay," he said. His manner was so genteel that I couldn't even bristle at his words.

 "That would describe it pretty well, sir," I said politely.

 "Call me Uncle Charlie," he said quickly. "Everyone does. Sir makes me feel so old." I nodded. "Well, it just so happens that I could use someone around the house here. Maybe we can work something out that would be mutually beneficial."

 "Grant had mentioned something along those lines, but I'm afraid I'm not quite sure what I'd be doing."

 "I'm getting along in years, Adam," he said in a matter-of-fact tone. "When you get my age, you start to notice that things you once took for granted are suddenly becoming more and more challenging. In my mind, I'm still a twenty year old, but my body begs to differ. Most of my friends of my generation are in worse shape than I am, the ones who haven't passed away that is. So far, I've been very fortunate, but I can't go on pretending it will last forever. There are already certain things that are just getting to be too much for me. I could use some help with things like shopping and light cooking and cleaning. I have a housekeeper who comes in once a week, but there are day-to-day things that need doing as well."

 "I don't know, sir - I mean...Uncle Charlie. I'm also looking for a job and if I found one I wouldn't be around all that much."

 "Oh, I would pay you something of course, aside from the room and board."

 This seemed too good to be true. There had to be a catch somewhere. Uncle Charlie must have seen the doubt on my face.

 "Okay, Adam, I'll be honest with you. As I said, I'm aging. I had a scare a couple weeks ago. I fell in my bedroom. I still don't know what happened. One minute I was fine, the next I was on the floor. I was fortunate in that I didn't injure myself, but if I had, I probably would have lain there until I died. The housekeep wasn't due in for several days. It would make an old man feel a lot better to know there was someone else in the house. And besides, it gets a bit lonely living here in this big house all alone."

 I couldn't tell how much of that had been an act for my sake and how much was sincere, but it had its desired effect. I nodded.

 "Maybe we can work something out," I said slowly.

 Uncle Charlie beamed.

 "Great!" Grant enthused. I'd almost forgotten he was there. "You can move in right away! I can take you back right now and help you pack your stuff."

 "Splendid idea!" Uncle Charlie agreed. "When you get back, I'll show you your rooms."

 "Whoa!" I said firmly. Things were moving a bit quickly for me. And had Uncle Charlie said rooms? "We haven't worked out the details yet."

 "There'll be plenty of time later for that," Uncle Charlie said as he stood up. Grant jumped to his feet too and I somehow found myself up and being pulled along towards the car while the two men chattered excitedly. Things were clearly out of my hands at this point, so I resigned myself to the inevitable and decided to sit back and enjoy the ride.

 It didn't take long to pack up my meager belongings, especially since I hadn't bothered to unpack most of it in the first place. At one point, my brain caught up with things enough to wonder what the big rush was, but then I decided that it was probably to keep me from changing my mind. Before I'd really had time for things to sink in, I was standing in Uncle Charlie's foyer, box in arms, waiting to be directed to my new room. Or was that rooms?

 Uncle Charlie greeted me like the prodigal son he hadn't seen in years instead of a complete stranger who'd just left here an hour before. He gave me the grand tour of the house, and believe me, it was quite grand. We ended up at the door of what he told me would be my rooms - once again plural. He opened them to reveal a suite of three rooms that were like something out of a fantasy. The first room, the sitting room as he called it, was as tastefully decorated as the rest of the house had been. The furniture was a comfortable mix of antiques and newer pieces. An inviting sofa was positioned in front of an entertainment center, and a couple chairs provided additional seating. Two rooms opened off of the sitting room, a bedroom - complete with queen-sized bed another television - and a bathroom that was larger than the entire apartment I'd just left. The bathtub was big enough to throw a party in and there was a completely separate marble encased shower stall.

 "This place is incredible," I mumbled in amazement.

 "Originally, it's the guest suite," Uncle Charlie said, beaming with pleasure at my awed reaction.

 "What if you have guests?" I asked.

 He dismissed my question with a wave of the hand. "I don't have many guests these days. And there are plenty of other rooms if I perchance do get the stray caller."

 "I just hope I'm worth this."

 "You already are. Just knowing there's someone else in the house makes it well worth it. Welcome, Adam."

 I blinked back the tears that threatened to spill over. I managed to maintain my tattered dignity until Grant and Uncle Charlie finally left me alone, ostensibly to unpack, although I suspect they sensed how near the edge I was. Once alone, I sat on the edge of the bed and wept. I was having trouble keeping up with my life changes.

 We spent the next few weeks getting to know one another. Charlie -- as I quickly came to call him since I found the uncle moniker a bit unwieldy -- was continually surprised at how little I knew about gay culture. He took it upon himself to be my tutor in all things homosexual. We went to clubs and bars, visited all the trendiest restaurants, and shopped until I thought I'd collapse from exhaustion. Throughout all of this, Charlie displayed an amazing stamina. He could easily run circles around me, even if he was several decades my senior. Realizing this, he quickly introduced me to the gym and started me on an exercise routine designed to get me in shape. I had no desire to look like some of the over pumped gym bunnies that frequented the gym, but it was a little embarrassing not being able to keep up with Charlie. 

 The other thing I couldn't help but notice as we went from one gay hot spot to another is that everyone knew Uncle Charlie. He was greeted warmly wherever we went, and as his guest, I was included as well.

 The more I learned about Charlie, the more impressed I became. I would have been awed if not for his easy-going, down-to-earth personality. He was a virtual tour of gay history. Charlie had been living in New York City during the time of the Stonewall Riots. At the time of the riots, he was a young hotshot attorney, deep in the closet but well aware of his true sexuality. The riots touched something in him and he left his job to join the burgeoning gay activist movement. He was a part of the early gay rights alliance known as the Gay Liberation Front.

 In the late 70's, Charlie ended up in Florida, fighting against Anita Bryant's homophobic "Save Our Children" campaign. He took the loss hard and moved to San Francisco; an area he felt would be more accepting. By this time, he had become disenchanted with the Gay Liberation Front and felt that the gay community had become too complacent. He was living in San Francisco when Harvey Milk was murdered and during the ensuing "White Night" Riots following the light sentence of his murderer, Dan White. It was during this time that Charlie settled down and entered into his first and last serious relationship, with an older man named Pietro.

 In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Charlie and Pietro lost literally dozens of friends. When Pietro began to get sick, they immediately feared the worst. Their fears were confirmed and Charlie was shattered. He figured it was just a matter of time before he'd learn he had it as well. Miraculously, he never contacted the virus. He nursed Pietro until he passed away, and then decided that he needed to get away from the painful memories. He moved back to New York, where he still had some close friends and contacts. As the number of AIDS related deaths continued to skyrocket, he became more and more outraged by how the Reagan and Bush administration failed to address the issue. Once more, Charlie found himself becoming involved in a major political movement. He was very crucial in the early formation of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which became known as ACT UP. In '88, ACT UP targeted the FDA headquarters in Rockville, Maryland, staging a "die-in" in the street, complete with tombstones bearing epitaphs like "I died for the sins of the FDA." More than 1,000 people participated in the nine-hour protest and 176 were arrested, although Charlie wasn't one of them. Despite the reasons he was there, he fell in love with the area and returned to Maryland several times over the next few years.

 He attended the Third March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights in '93, where he met Tim McFeeley, the executive director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, which later changed its name to the Human Rights Campaign. McFeeley invited Charlie to take a position within the HRCF, which Charlie jumped at, thrilled to have an excuse to move to Maryland. He worked with HRC up until a few years ago, when he'd quietly retired after thirty years of activism.

 "I thought I'd earned some rest," he told me one day while we were at dinner at the newest trendy restaurant in town. "I had no idea I'd be so bored."

 I laughed. "I know what you mean," I said in a rare moment of candidness. I was usually very careful about what I said in front of Charlie. I felt so indebted to him for all he'd done for me; I didn't want him to think I was ungrateful. I immediately wished I could take the words back as soon as the left my mouth.

 Charlie looked at me with a surprised expression. "You're bored!" he exclaimed.

 "No, I didn't mean that..." I sputtered, but Charlie waved away my protests.

 "Of course you are! I should have seen it sooner. Why wouldn't you be bored, spending all your time with an old man?"

 "Charlie...!"

 "You need to have some interests outside the house. A job maybe? Or a man?"

 "I don't think I'm ready for a man," I said quickly.

 "A job then?"

 "I don't know what I'd do."

 "What were you doing before? Something with computers?"

 "Yes, I was the company webmaster."

 He raised an eyebrow. "Sounds kinky."

 I laughed again. "I maintained the company's website."

 "Ah. You'll have to excuse me; I'm a bit of a computer illiterate. Did you enjoy the work?"

 I had to think about that for a minute. Had I enjoyed the work? To some degree, it had simply been as escape from my suffocating home life. I had to admit, though, that I had enjoyed the work, if not the environment.

 "I enjoyed the work," I said slowly.

 "But?"

 "But I didn't really enjoy the work environment."

 "Hmm," he said thoughtfully.

 The subject moved on and I forgot all about it until a few days later when it came up again at the breakfast table.

 "I've been thinking about what we talked about the other evening," he told me as I took a large bite of toast and marmalade. I looked at him blankly as I chewed. "About a job?"

 I nodded as I remembered. "It has slipped my mind, to be honest," I admitted.

 "Well, it didn't slip mine. I hope you won't be angry at me, but I talked to some friends of mine about web design. I was curious to know more about it and to see if my plan would be feasible."

 "Plan?"

 "I was thinking that you could open your own web design company."

 "Me?"

 "Why not? You said you enjoyed the work. My friends said it's a business with fairly low overheard, not too hard to get into, and best of all, you can work from anywhere that has internet access."

 "I'd still need money to get started." I argued. "I'd need a computer and software; I'd have to advertise..."

 Charlie was shaking his head so hard I was afraid he'd make himself dizzy so I stopped mid-sentence.

 "I have money," he said simply.

 "What? Charlie, you can't..."

 "I can."

 "You've already done too much!"

 He pursed his lips. "I'll decide when I've done too much. Adam, I want to do this."

 "But why? You've been so generous."

 "It's just money and I have plenty of it. I can't take it with me when I go. Sure, I could leave it to charity, but why not do some good with it while I'm still here to enjoy it? I want to give something back. For years, I did that through my activism, but I just don't have the energy for that anymore. Here you are, a young gay man who has just had his whole world turned inside out. I want to do whatever I can to help you get back on your feet and find out who you are."

 I must have still looked unconvinced, for he sighed. "Maybe it would help if I explained something. Have you wondered where all my money came from?"

 I opened and closed my mouth a few times while I tried to decide how to answer. Truthfully, I had wondered but it seemed impolite to say so. Generally speaking, activists were not the wealthiest individuals. I'd assumed he was independently wealthy somehow, maybe an inheritance or something.

 Charlie spared me the discomfort of coming up with a response. "I inherited it, every last penny," he said, confirming my theory. "I think I've mentioned Pietro?" I nodded. "He was quite well off, a successful business man and something of a whiz on the stock market. I really had no idea how much he had, it didn't really matter; I was quite used to living on very little. I certainly had no idea he was leaving it all to me."

 He paused and took a deep breath. "When he died, I was...floored when I learned he'd left me his entire fortune. It scared me. I didn't know what to do with it. I was even angry at him for not talking to me about it. I didn't want anything to do with it because it just reminded me of him. I was fortunate enough to have a friend at the time who convinced me to put it in the bank and leave it alone. After I began to heal, it occurred to me that he just wanted me to be happy. I knew he would have been hurt by the way I'd reacted to his gift. Even later, I realized how much good I could do with that money. I decided to honor his memory with it. I want to use it to help young gay men in need."

 "But why me? You didn't even know me before Grant dragged me into your life a few weeks ago. There are other gay guys out there who need help as much as I do."

 "But they weren't brought into my life. I believe everything happens for a reason; you came into my life for a reason. I don't want to argue about this. If it makes you uncomfortable, we'll not speak of it anymore, but at least promise me this. Think about it for a little while before you turn me down. This is truly something I want to do. I've already grown quite fond of you and it would make me happy to be able to assist you like this. If it makes you feel any better, you can even think of me as a venture capitalist. Just don't let your pride stand in the way of accepting my offer."

 I nodded slowly. "I'll think about it," I conceded.

 "Thank you," he said softly. "That's all I ask."

 And I did think about it. I thought about it almost constantly for the next several days. I really struggled with it, but eventually he wore me down with his gentle insistence and I accepted his offer. You would have thought I'd given him a gift instead. He reacted like a child on Christmas morning, immediately dragging me off to look at computers. He insisted on buying the best of the line. Next came the software; followed by every office accessory he could think of -- including a desk, a plush work chair, a fax machine, and a laser printer.

 He was watching with an indulgent smile as I set up the office in yet another room he'd had stripped for my use. "I'm planning to go down to my beach house this weekend," he said. I looked up in surprise. I hadn't even known he had a beach house. "You're welcome to come with me."

 "I wouldn't want to intrude," I said quickly.

 "It wouldn't be an intrusion. In fact, I'd appreciate your company."

 There was something he wasn't saying, but I sensed he wanted me to go. After all he'd done for me, I couldn't very well say no. "Then I'd be happy to go. It sounds nice. Where is your beach house?"

 "On the Eastern Shore," he said, referring to the part of Maryland to the east of the Chesapeake Bay. The entire peninsula was commonly referred to as the Eastern Shore. "In Ocean City."

 "I thought it was pretty built up," I said. It had been a long time since I'd been there. When I was young, every summer my father loaded us all into our big station wagon and drove us down to Ocean City. We'd spend a week splashing in the ocean and enjoying the rides at the amusement park, leaving with sunburns and enough boxes of salt-water taffy to weigh down the back end of the car. The taffy would be handed out to friends and neighbors upon our arrival home. My memories of the resort town were warm and fuzzy, but I'd heard that town had grown exponentially over the years. Its beaches and boardwalk were now the most popular tourist attractions in Maryland, bringing in millions of dollars in revenue every year. Supposedly, it became the most densely populated city in the US during the peak summer months.

 "It is," Charlie answered. "This house is one of the few left. It's pretty far north and I could probably make a fortune selling it to developers, but I love it just the way it is."

 We drove down that weekend and I found a very different Ocean City from the one in my memories. It was barely recognizable. Every square inch of sand seemed to be covered with either buildings or parking lots. The only way to go was up and up they had gone. High-rises loomed menacingly over the highway that cut through the center of the city. Traffic was horrendous and scantily clad men and women tended to dart across the road unexpectedly, causing even more driving hazards. Finally, we reached Charlie's beach house. It was like arriving at an oasis. The house itself was a charming two-storied affair, cedar shingled with crisp white trim. It sat facing the Atlantic Ocean in a small yard that may have once featured a beautiful garden but it was overgrown and weed-choked now.

 "Well, here it is," Charlie announced proudly as I pulled into the driveway. "Sadly, the garden needs more work than I can give it these days," he added with a touch of regret in his voice.

 "It's beautiful," I said quite truthfully, an idea beginning to form in my head.

 "You really think so?" he asked eagerly.

 "Of course. And what a great view."

 The inside of the house was just as charming as the outside. The first floor was divided into a living room, a family room, bathroom, and a kitchen/dining room. The second floor held two bedrooms and another bathroom. It was furnished with comfortable beach style pieces, which wasn't quite my style but appealing all the same. We spent a pleasant weekend there before returning home.

 Over the next few months, we returned to the beach house every few weeks. In between our visits, my web design business began to grow, thanks largely to Charlie's contacts. He wouldn't admit it, but I was pretty sure he had called in some favors to get some of these guys to hire me to develop websites for their companies. Either way, the jobs I began to get from people who had seen my sites was gratifying and proved that I could make it on my own. I threw myself into my work in an attempt to cover my pain at missing the boys. My few attempts to see them had ended messily.

 I was so caught up in the new business that I had no time left to date, much to Charlie's constant vexation. He was constantly introducing me to eligible bachelors, but I either wasn't interested or just didn't have time. The other side effect of my growing business was that it was months before I was able to enact the plan I began to come up with on our first trip to the beach house. I was making a fairly decent living at this point, between what Charlie was paying me and my clients. I set the plan in motion and waited impatiently for our next trip down.

 It was two more weeks before we made our next trip down. I was anxious the whole drive down. It didn't take Charlie long to pick up on it.

 "What do you have up your sleeve?" he asked me about an hour into the trip.

 I grinned at how easily he had read me. "You'll just have to wait and see."

 His reaction as the house came into view was priceless. His mouth dropped open and his eyes lit up as he took in the restored gardens surrounding the house. It had cost quite a bit, but the results were well worth it. The aged, overgrown plants had been removed and replaced with beautifully tasteful specimens specifically chosen to need the least amount of care in this environment.

 "Did you do this?" he finally managed.

 "Yeah. I thought it would be a small way for me to say thank you. What do you think?"

 "It's perfect, Adam," he said a little shakily. He turned to face me and I noticed a tear in his eye. "Thank you."

 We slowly walked around the house, admiring the flowers and shrubs the landscaper I'd hired had chosen. I got a lot of pleasure just seeing Charlie's reaction, but it was my first time seeing it as well.

 "You know," he said as we stood on the porch looking out at the ocean. "If I were a younger man you'd be quite the catch." I laughed and he shook his head. "Let me rephrase that. You are quite the catch; I'm just too old to appreciate it fully. You deserve to have someone in your life, Adam."

 "I'm not ready for that yet," I said, giving my standard answer whenever he brought up the subject. Usually he dropped it at this point. Tonight was different however.

 "Why not?" he challenged.

 "Huh?" That wasn't in the script. "What do you mean why not?"

 "I mean, why not? Why aren't you ready? What's standing in your way?"

 "I...I don't know. I mean, it wasn't that long ago my marriage broke up..."

 "A loveless marriage. You can't tell me you're not over Eve."

 "The kids..."

 "Don't have anything to do with your love life, or lack thereof. Don't use them as an excuse."

 "I don't know anyone..."

 "I've introduced you to plenty of men. Surely not all of them were incompatible."

 I sighed. "You're right. I'm just scared. It's been so long..."

 "You're an attractive man. Not to mention smart, caring and thoughtful. You're going to make someone a great partner. I think it's time for you to get out there and start looking."

 "Yes, Mother," I said with a small smile.

 He looked at me from beneath an arched eyebrow. "You should listen to your mother," he said. "Now get inside before you catch your death of cold. And don't forget to wash your hands before dinner!"

 That was the weekend when I first began to notice the signs. We took our usual walk on the beach, but he was out of breath by the time we reached our usual turning point. We stood silently while he caught his breath, carefully not mentioning his uncharacteristic lack of stamina. At his cheery, "Let's go!" we started back, a bit slower this time.

 After that, I began noticing other signs, things I'd overlooked while completely wrapped up in my new business. He'd begun napping in the afternoon, something he'd never done when I first moved in. He often dozed off while we were relaxing in the evening, watching TV or even once at the dinner table. I took note of the amount of pills he was suddenly taking. I'd never seen him take anything stronger than an aspirin before now. What was going on? Was this simple aging? Had the effects of age just taken longer to catch up with Charlie, but once they had, they struck hard? Or had he just hidden his frailty from me early on? No, I decided, no one was that good of an actor.

 It was the last possibility that shook me the most. Was it possible that Charlie was ill? Wouldn't he tell me if he was? The answer to that was immediate and obvious. No, he wouldn't tell me. He wouldn't want me to worry. I decided to ask him directly.

 One morning I waited for him in the sunny side porch where he loved to take eat breakfast when the weather was warm enough. It was an inviting room, completely enclosed in glass, plants hugging the walls. A small round table was set in the middle of the room, covered with a white tablecloth. I'd placed a steaming teapot in its center, along with a teacup waiting for Charlie. It was a morning ritual that had begun soon after I moved in.

 I was sipping a cup of tea when he came in. He didn't see me at first, his expression was unguarded, a perfect portrait of sadness and loss. His face pale and a little gray, his back bent. He looked old.

 When he noticed me in the corner, his entire demeanor changed dramatically. A huge grin spread across his face, lighting him up and bringing color to his skin, his back straightened. This time however, I wasn't fooled. I now knew what to look for and the old man I'd just seen was still there under the surface.

 "Adam, I didn't see you there," he said, his voice bright and hearty. He carefully lowered himself into one of the chairs at the table as I stood up and joined him.

 "Charlie, we need to talk," I said gently.

 His eyes found mine and I could tell that he knew what I wanted to talk about. His eyes pleaded with me to leave it alone, but I had to know.

 I decided the direct approach would be the least painful. "Are you ill?" I asked.

 His eyes snapped shut and he was quiet for so long I began to wonder if he was going to answer me or just wait for me to go away. If the rise and fall of his chest hadn't been so plain, I would have thought he'd passed away. After a long time, his eyes reopened and focused on me.

 "Yes," he said simply.

 I took a moment to absorb this. He's just confirmed my worst fear. I needed to know more.

 "How...how long have you known?"

 Charlie looked away. "I've known for few months now."

 "Why didn't you tell me?"

 He turned to look at me once more. "I didn't want you to stay out of pity for a dying old man. I wanted you to be able to leave when you were ready. Things have moved faster than they thought they would. I didn't think...I didn't want you to be here when I began to go downhill."

 I'd almost stopped hearing him after the word dying. Everything after that I'd only heard as a dim echo, the words penetrating but not registering. He was dying. We sat in a tension-filled silence for several minutes while I worked up the nerve to ask the question that was ricocheting around my brain.

 "What is it?" I finally managed in a barely audible voice.

 "Cancer." The word dropped like a brick.

 "It's not treatable?"

 Charlie grimaced. "The treatment is worse than the disease. I've seen friends go through it and suffer horribly. And for what? A few measly months? I've lived a full life, Adam. I'm not afraid to die. I just want to go out with dignity. I want to leave here knowing I did what I could to make the world a better place, right up to the end. That's why it was so important to me that you accept my gift."

 I shook my head, still not understanding. "But how can you just give up? You could fight this..."

 "Adam, weren't you listening? The doctors said that even with treatment I'd only be gaining a couple months at the most. I don't want whatever time I have left to be consumed with torturous treatments that make me sick and weak. And for God's sake, my hair might fall out! I'm a vain man, Adam. Let me die with my hair intact."

 He said this last with a wry grin on his face. He was trying to make light of the situation but I couldn't bring myself to smile back. In the few short months I'd lived with Charlie, he'd become my closest friend and, really, my only family. And now he was telling me it was just a matter of months before he was gone.

 "How long?" I rasped.

 "Six months at the most." A pause. "At the rate it's advancing, more likely less."

 I felt my breath rush out of me in a whoosh.

 "I should have told you sooner."

 "Do you think?' I snapped, suddenly angry. "You're the only person in my life right now. Didn't you think that I might need some time to deal with this? It never occurred to you that I might want be there for you through this?"

 "Of course it occurred to me," he replied calmly. "Like I said, I didn't want you to feel obligated to stay when you need to move on with your life."

 "Move on with my life? Is that what you wanted to do when you found out Pietro had AIDS?"

 "That was a very different situation," he said stonily, although I could tell my point had been made. "Pietro was my lover."

 "And you've been like a father to me the last few months. How could you think I'd just walk away from that?"

 "I'm not your responsibility."

 "And I wasn't yours but you were there for me anyway, a complete stranger. Who's going to take care of you?"

 "I'll hire a nurse."

 "I'm fully capable..."

 "It's not about being capable. I don't want you to feel as if you owe me this. I want you to go live your life..."

 "Damn it, Charlie!" I shouted suddenly, causing him to jump. "This isn't just your decision. I'm not a child and I'm not a puppet that you can control by pulling my strings."

 He blinked for a second, then nodded. "You're right, of course. I have been treating you like a child. Perhaps it's because I've come to think of you as the son I never had."

 His unexpected admission took the wind out of me and I slumped back into my chair.

 "I can stay?" I asked.

 "I was never going to force you to leave. I just wanted you to be able to leave when you needed to without feeling responsible for me."

 "You'll let me help you?"

 He smiled weakly. "Could I stop you?"

 "No."

 "Then why fight it?"

 "That means no more keeping things from me."

 "Agreed."

 "And you'll tell me when you need me to do something."

 "Well, unless you're busy with work..." I cut him off with a glare. He sighed. "Agreed."

 "Shake on it," I said, holding out my hand. He took it in his and we shook, sealing the deal.

 To his credit, he kept his side of the bargain. He steadily worsened over the next couple months at what seemed to me to be an alarming rate. His doctors were beyond frustrating with their stoic expressions and their noncommittal murmurings. By the time winter arrived, Charlie was just a pale shadow of the man I'd met just a matter of months before. The man I'd met had looked younger than his years, strong and healthy. Now he looked far older than his age, fragile and shrunken. It was hard to wrap my mind around the concept that someone could fade away so quickly. It took all his strength now just to cross the room, even with my assistance. I knew it was just a matter of weeks, maybe even days, before he'd be completely bed ridden.

 I stayed by his side throughout it all. I moved my computer into his room and I would work while he slept, which is how he spent the majority of his day. The medications he was now on for the pain kept him drowsy. When he had to do something important, he'd skip the pain meds in order to be clear-headed, but the pain was obvious in his eyes. I knew his time was rapidly drawing to a close, and so did he, though we never spoke of it.

 One morning towards the end, he refused his pain medication even though he was obviously in a lot of pain, so I knew he had something important in the works. He still made appointments without my assistance, which often meant I didn't know what his plans were until he was ready to reveal them to me. It was a small thing I could do to give him some feeling of independence, even though it often caught me off guard.

 "Who's coming today?" I asked him as I handed him a cup of tea. It was only lukewarm in case he spilled it on himself as he'd done a few weeks before.

 "Randall Dupont," he said. His voice was the only thing that hadn't faded with the rest of him.

 "Your lawyer?" I asked with some surprise.

 "Yes."

 "Why is he coming over?"

 "Not that it's any of your business, but I want to make some changes to my will."

 I stopped what I was doing. I had no idea what the current terms of his will were except that he was leaving the bulk of his estate to various GLBT organizations, but I had a sneaking suspicion as to what he wanted to change it to.

 "I hope you're not thinking about pulling a Pietro," I said casually.

 "Hmm?" he responded equally casually.

 I sat down and looked his in the eye. "Don't even think of leaving me your estate."

 He grinned and for a second I saw a flash of the old Charlie. "And if I do? What are you going to do? Kill me?"

 "Be serious, Charlie," I admonished. "I don't need it. I wouldn't know what to do with it. Do what you planned on doing with it. It'll do a more good in the hands of those organizations than in my bank account. I'm doing fine with my business, which is all thanks to you to begin with. You've given me more than enough."

 "For your information, Mr. Know-It-All," he said with an immensely pleased expression, "I wasn't planning on leaving my estate to you."

 "Oh...I..." I felt my face flush hotly.

 "And if I was, I wouldn't need your permission."

 "Charlie, I'm sorry..."

 "Ah, get your foot out of your mouth and get to work. Oh, and when Randall gets here, I'd appreciate it if you would give us some privacy."

 Curiosity inflamed, it would be another month before I'd find out what the changes had been, only after Charlie had passed away. He went easily, in his sleep. He was simply gone one morning when I went in to give him his pain medicine, lying peacefully in the bed as if he would wake at any moment. I knew as soon as I stepped into the room however, that he would not. He was too still, too quiet, too empty. There's an indefinable quality that life brings, the spark that makes us who we are, and it was clearly gone from the shell that remained.

 The funeral service was beautiful. I was surprised at the number of people who came, everyone who was anyone in the gay activist community. Charlie had touched many lives. There was no doubt in the mind of anyone present that Charlie had done what he'd set out to do -- make a difference in the world.

* * *
 Not long after the funeral, I moved out of the huge house that I'd shared with Charlie. Randall Dupont, Charlie's lawyer, had told me I was free to stay as long as I needed, but it felt empty without him. The business was doing well enough that I was able to afford a much nicer apartment this time around.

 About a week after the funeral, I received a call from Mr. Dupont asking me to come to his office. I had a feeling it had something to do with Charlie's will, and I was right.

 "Mr. Connelly," the middle-aged lawyer began after I'd been seated in the soft leather chair facing his ornate desk. I'd always found Mr. Dupont to be a pleasant, if somewhat stuffy fellow. "As I'm sure you recall I visited with Charlie shortly before his death."

 "Please, call me Adam," I said. "And yes, I remember. Charlie told me he was changing his will."

 "Ah, yes. Indeed." He seemed somewhat flustered that I'd jumped ahead in the script he was following. He paused for a moment and found his place. "The reason that I've asked you here today is because when he changed his will, it was changed to include you."

 I sighed. Mr. Dupont blinked. It wasn't the reaction he'd expected.

 "I specifically asked him not to," I explained.

 "Indeed," Mr. Dupont said, still blinking rapidly. "Perhaps this will explain things better," he said after a moment, sliding a cream-colored envelope across the desk in my direction.

 I picked up the envelope and stared down at it for a minute before gently ripping it open. The outside gave no hints as to its contents. It was completely blank save for my name written in the uneven scrawl that had become Charlie's handwriting in the last weeks of his life. Inside, I found a single sheet of matching cream stationary. It was a letter from Charlie. I started to read.

 "Dearest Adam," it began. "Before I say anything else, I want to thank you, though mere words cannot hope to express the depth of my gratitude. You came into my life when I had no reason to expect anything but emptiness and made my final months fuller than I had any right to hope. You are truly the son I never had.

 "I know you will make some lucky man a wonderful and fulfilling partner someday, and I firmly believe that you will be reunited with your children. I know you try to keep that part of yourself buried deep within, but I see the pain it causes you not to see your boys. I wish my money could do something to alleviate that pain, but it cannot. In the end, money can rarely, if ever, mend matters of the heart.

 "You've made it quite clear, much to my amusement, how you feel about being included in my inheritance, but I hope you'll forgive me for what I am about to do. If you are reading this, then I am already gone and there is nothing you can do about it anyway." I could almost hear his dry chuckle as I read his words. "I am leaving you the beach house. I believe it meant as much to you as it did to me, and I know you will take good care of it. I am also leaving you a small amount that you can do with as you wish. If nothing else, do what my friend told me to do after Pietro's gift to me and place it in a bank account until you are ready. Perhaps you can save it for the boys. Whatever you decide, I hope that you will accept it with the intention with which it is given to you -- out of love and appreciation.

 "Finally, with the end of my life you have run out of excuses to avoid your own. Start living, Adam, and live fully. Life is a gift; do not waste it.

 "With great affection, Uncle Charlie"

 Tears ran down my cheeks as I read the last words.

 "Ahem," Mr. Dupont cleared his throat. "In addition to the bequest of the home in Ocean City, you are also to receive what I believe Charlie referred to as a small amount of cash."

 "So I read," I said with a sniff. "What exactly did Charlie consider a small amount?"

 Mr. Dupont named a figure that nearly caused me to fall out of my chair.

 "You must be joking," I gasped.

 "I assure you I'm not," was his dry response.

 Charlie had outwitted me.

* * *
 I didn't want anything to do with the money, or the house for that matter. I put the money in a saving account and put them both from my mind. I did make an effort to follow his other advice and start living my life. I was still scared, but I forced myself to start going out. I called several of the men Charlie had introduced me to and even went on second dates with a couple of them. None of which produced sparks.

 It was months before I could bring myself to drive down to the beach house. I hadn't been there since Charlie had gotten too sick to make the drive. The house had suffered from my neglect. The gardens were weedy and dust layered the furniture inside. I spent a weekend cleaning, working in the gardens, and generally trying to avoid the ghost of Charlie. He would have wanted the house kept up though, and I made out reasonably well during the day. Once the sun fell below the horizon however, it was another story altogether. Sitting alone in the house was torturous. I managed to get through the first night by going to bed early. The second night, though, I wasn't tired enough for that trick to work. I finally I decided to drive up to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. It's a beach resort town that I'd been to a few times with Charlie. On the surface, it was much like Ocean City, except on a much smaller scale. The difference was Rehoboth Beach was something of a gay Mecca whereas Ocean City tended to be a bit homophobic. There were several gay bars and clubs there, and while they weren't my usual scene, it was a measure of how desperate I was for distraction.

 After parking my car downtown, I walked to the Blue Moon, one of the nicer places I remembered Charlie taking me to. As I walked in, almost every head turned to watch me. I was a new face in a small town where almost everyone knew each other. I felt the eyes following me as I crossed the room to the bar. I ordered a drink and steeled myself to turn around and face the crowd.

 "You here on vacation?" the bartender, a darkly handsome guy in his mid-twenties, asked me as he handed me my rum and coke.

 "Huh?" I responded wittily, surprised at being directly addressed.

 "I don't think I've seen you around before; I know most of the locals. I figured you're vacationing here."

 "Actually, I have a beach house in Ocean City," I said and took a sip of my drink. Then, in that mysterious way that good bartenders have of inviting confidences, I found myself telling him more than I'd planned. "I just inherited it. It's the first time I've been there since my friend that used to own it died. I just couldn't stay there alone another night."

 He paused in wiping down the bar and gave me a close look. "You're not talking about Uncle Charlie, are you?" he asked.

 Hearing his name spoken in this place where I'd gone to escape his memory struck something deep inside me. I threw back the rest of the drink and nodded. "Yeah, it was Charlie."

 "Wow," he said. "That place meant the world to him. Everyone here was always trying to get him to sell it and get a place up here, but he wouldn't even consider it. You must have been something really special for him to leave it to you."

 I shrugged, fighting back a sudden urge to cry. "I was there for him at the end."

 A sympathetic look crossed the bartender's face. "I'm sorry. I'm being an insensitive schmuck. You've just lost your lover and I'm prattling on about it. Here, have another drink on me."

 "We weren't lovers!" I said quickly. "He was like a father to me, helped me through some hard times."

 He smiled. "That sounds like him, alright. Always there to help a fellow queer in need." He handed me another drink and raised one of his own. "To Uncle Charlie," he said loudly. I raised my glass and took a large gulp of its contents, mixed considerably stronger this time.

 Someone sat down next to me at the bar but I was staring into my glass and didn't pay attention to him. "You knew Charlie?" he asked me in a soft voice.

 I sighed without looking up. I'd come here to forget and it seemed as if everyone here was conspiring to remind me every few seconds. I was about to just stand up and walk out when I glanced over at the man perched on the stool next to me. He was attractive enough to give me pause. He was tall, even sitting down he looked to be over six foot, and well built. He had wavy dark brown hair and bore a striking resemblance to Tom Selleck, sans mustache. It was his eyes, though, that made me stay where I was. They were filled with pain that I found familiar. I'd seen the same look in the mirror everyday since Charlie died.

 "Yes," I said. "You knew him too?"

 He nodded. "He was a good friend. I didn't hear about his death until after or I would have been at the funeral."

 "The service was very nice. There was a big crowd."

 "You were there?"

 "I helped plan it."

 His eyes widened. "You must have been close."

 "I...I took care of him at the end."

 He frowned. "I didn't even know he was sick."

 "He didn't want anyone to know. How did you know him?"

 "Oh, I'm sorry. I should have introduced myself. My name is Steve Redden."

 "Adam Connelly," I said, accepting his proffered hand and shaking it. He had a firm grip.

 His eyes lit up in recognition. "He mentioned you in one of his letters."

 "Really?" I was surprised to say the least.

 "Yes, he mentioned that you were living with him and that you'd been 'a great blessing to an old man', to use his exact words. He said you'd been an immense help to him."

 I smiled in spite of myself. "That sounds like something he'd say. He was the one who was an immense help to me. He took me in and took care of me when I was in a very bad place in my life. He even helped me get my business started."

 "No shit? He did the same thing with me years and years ago. Well, I didn't live with him, but he paid for me to go to college to become an architect. To this day, I don't know how he even knew who I was or that I needed help."

 "He had contacts," I said softly.

 "He was a good man."

 "That he was." I glanced down at his empty glass. "Can I buy you a drink, Steve?"

 He looked up and smiled at me. "I'd like that, Adam."

* * *
 Steve and I talked late into the night. We really seemed to hit it off. At the end of the night, we exchanged numbers and went our separate ways. He stayed on my mind constantly for the next few days, but I was too nervous to call him and I didn't hear a word from him. I had pretty much decided I'd read too much into it when I returned to my apartment to find a message on my answering machine. I'd given him my home number instead of the number at the beach house. I was mortified. I called him back immediately and apologized. He told me he'd like to see me again the next time I came down and I felt my heart flutter. I realized that I hadn't felt like this since I was a kid. It was a nice feeling, but a little scary.

 We planned to see each other again in a few weeks. It would be an official date this time and I was scared out of my skull. In the meantime, we talked on the phone every night. It wasn't long before I realized I was developing serious feelings for this man.

 The night of the big date, I changed my clothes three times before I left the house, and I hadn't brought that many outfits with me to the beach house. We met once again at the Blue Moon and had a drink at the bar before going into the attached restaurant where he'd made reservations.

 We had a wonderful evening. The chemistry was just as evident as our first meeting. I was really enjoying myself until he brought up the subject of families, something that had somehow never come up in all our phone conversations.

 "Do you have much family?" he asked.

 "No, my parents passed away years ago and I was an only child," I told him. I don't know why I didn't mention my marriage and two kids, but something stopped me.

 "I'm sorry. My parents passed away a few years ago too. I do have a sister though."

 "Are you close?"

 "Not as close as we used to be. She's never been very supportive of me after I came out. Her husband is even worse. One of those self-righteous Christian types."

 "That's too bad."

 "Yeah, and the worst part is, I think he's trying to keep me from seeing her at all. She just had her third child and he's made it pretty clear he doesn't want me to even come for a visit."

 "That's awful," I said, thinking once more about my boys and how I wasn't allowed to see them either. "Do you like kids?"

 He shrugged. "As long as they are someone else's."

 I looked up, my fork stopping in mid-air. "You don't want kids of your own?"

 "Not really. I'm not one of those gay guys who runs around talking about adoption rights and whining about being a family. I like my life the way it is, I don't need additional complications."

 "Oh," I said, my heart sinking fast. At least I'd found out now instead of later, I tried to tell myself, but I couldn't stop the intense feeling of disappointment. I hadn't given up on getting my boys back and if Steve was that adamant about not wanting children...

 I grew quiet after that, answering questions as briefly as possible. I'd gone from wanting the evening to last all night to just wanting it to end as soon as possible. I'm sure Steve noticed my withdrawal, but he didn't give any sign. He insisted in paying the bill and then we rose and walked outside. It was an ideal night, clear and warm.

 "Let's walk on the boardwalk," Steve suggested.

 "No, I should really be going," I said in an attempt to beg off.

 "It's a beautiful night," he said persuasively. "It's too early to go home. Come on, walk with me." When I still paused, he added, "Please?"

 How could I say no to those puppy dog eyes? I sighed and fell into step beside him. We walked in silence down the street and onto the boardwalk. It was the perfect romantic setting. Couples strolled hand in hand down the boardwalk, the beach stretched out waiting for the next day of sun-worshippers to descend, the moon sparkled on the ocean like a million diamonds scattered across its surface.

 "So what did I say wrong?" he asked after a few minutes.

 "Nothing," I answered too quickly.

 "Come on, Adam. Give me a little credit. Everything was going great and then you suddenly pulled away like I'd slapped you. What was it?"

 I sighed. "I have two kids."

 His eyebrows shot up. "Really?"

 "Boys. One is thirteen and one is ten, almost eleven."

 "Wow. Do they live with you?"

 "No, they live with their mother, my ex-wife. She won't even let me see them."

 "Wow. I don't know what to say."

 "There's nothing to say. I haven't given up on getting them back, so I guess that means we're over. I wouldn't want it to complicate your life or anything."

 "Adam, when I said that I didn't know you had kids."

 "It doesn't change anything."

 "Yes it does! It changes everything."

 "How?"

 He stopped, obviously at a loss for words.

 "See?" I said wearily. "It doesn't change anything." I walked away to stand at the rail at the edge of the boardwalk. I felt Steve walk up behind me. After a moment, I felt his hands on my shoulders. I tensed up immediately.

 "We've only known each other for a few weeks," he said softly. "We've still got a lot to learn about each other, but I already know that I like you. A lot. You're different from anyone I've ever met. And I mean different in a good way. You're a good man, Adam, and I'd like the chance get to know you better."

 "What about my kids?"

 He tenderly began to massage my shoulders. "I hope to get to meet them someday."

 "But you said..."

 "I've never pictured myself with kids. I guess I just grew accustomed to thinking I'd never have kids so it was just easier to say I didn't want them. I've known I was gay since I was very young and I've never found anyone I could see myself settling down with... until now."

 I felt the tension easing out of my shoulders under his ministrations. "But now?" I said, in a voice that was barely audible.

 "Now I've met you."

 "We just met. We hardly know each other."

 "I know enough to know that I'm attracted to you and I want to know you better. That's all I'm asking. I didn't even know you'd been married before a few minutes ago, let alone that you had kids. It doesn't change how I feel about you. It caught me off guard...I wish you'd told me before."

 "I was afraid it would drive you away."

 He gently turned my shoulders so I was facing him. "Nothing you can tell me will drive me away unless you say you're not attracted to me and you want me to go away. Is that how it is?"

 I looked into his eyes and could see the sincerity in them. "I don't want you to go away," I whispered. And I didn't. I wanted him in my life. I wanted to know him inside and out.

 He leaned in and I felt his lips press against mine. For a second, I felt as if I were falling but then I felt his strong arms slide around my body and I felt more grounded than I'd ever felt in my life. We kissed for an eternity or what might only have been moments -- I couldn't tell you now -- before I pulled away.

 "What about the boys?" I asked him, unable to let it go just yet.

 "If they're a part of you, I'm sure I'll love them."

 I melted back into his arms.

 "So do I get a second chance?" he murmured softly into my hair.

 "Absolutely."

 His arms tightened around me and I whispered a prayer of thanks to Charlie, wherever he was. In a way, he'd done me one last favor by bringing Steve and me together. I had a feeling this was only the beginning.

Continued in Bright Things Come to Confusion: Seth's Story

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