Never Alone

 The rough bark of the tree bit into my back as I pressed against it, terror forced my heart into a frantic staccato rhythm. The wan moonlight from the crescent moon above filtered through the bare branches above me, allowing me enough light to see shapes and forms, but nothing in detail. I tried to control my gasping breath, knowing the slightest sound could give me away and lead to my death.

 I was being hunted. I was the prey.

 I heard something approaching, thrashing noisily through the dry leaves behind me. Only my hunter would be so careless as to make so much noise. Stealth was no longer to his advantage; I knew he was coming for me and we both knew he wouldn’t stop until I was dead. I could stay still and hope he passed me by or I could make a run for it and hope to outrun him. Fear won out over reason and I launched myself away from the dubious security of the tree. Maybe the noise the hunter was making would drown out the sounds I made as I fled blindly through the trees.

 It seemed like the very forest was conspiring against me. Branches smacked across my face as brambles grabbed greedily at my clothes. I tripped and stumbled over roots that were seemingly thrust between my feet. Each time I fell, I doggedly bounced back to my feet and continued running. I knew I was bleeding, I could feel the warm liquid running down my face, mixing with the cold sweat of panic, but I felt no pain. I had no room for anything but fear and the will to survive.

 Suddenly, I burst into a clearing. My mind barely had time to register the rectangular hole gaping obscenely in my path like a grave waiting eagerly for its grisly occupant. I veered to the left in an attempt to avoid it, but I came too close, my foot fell at the edge of the opening and the soft earth crumbled, sending me crashing into the black void.

 It wasn’t as deep as I’d thought; only a couple feet at the most. I struggled to get up again, but this time agonizing pain shot down my leg and I collapsed back to the earth. I rolled over just as a dark shadow fell over me. I looked up to find a figure looming over me, silhouetted against the sky, his features cloaked in darkness. The hunter had caught his prey. I knew with a sudden grim certainty that this was to be my grave.

* * *

 I awoke with a start, my heart pounding and my T-shirt wet with cold sweat. I sat up, pushing my damp hair away from my face and took deep, gulping breaths. Calm down, I told myself.

 It was just a dream—the same dream I’ve been having periodically for years now. I used to wake the whole house up as I came up out of the nightmare screaming and crying. I’d learned to control my reaction somewhat, but it was still no less terrifying.

 Eventually, my heart rate began to return to normal and my breathing evened out. I was wide-awake now and knew from experience I wouldn’t be getting much sleep for the rest of the night. I glanced over at my clock radio and saw that it was almost four o’clock in the morning. It could have been worse, I thought with a sigh. The last time I’d had the dream a couple months ago I woke up at two-thirty. I’d barely made it through the next day at school, I’d been so tired.

 I slid out of bed and peeled off the clammy T-shirt. Unlike my dream, the sky was brightening with false dawn and my room was lit with the ghostly illumination. I caught a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror on the back of my door and stopped. I looked awful. My shoulder length black hair hung damp and limp, framing my face with its sticky tendrils. Dark circles surrounded my deep brown almond-shaped eyes, set in a broad face with high cheekbones. No one ever had any trouble guessing that I was of Native American heritage. I fit the Hollywood stereotype perfectly, even down to my less-than-average height and lean, fit body. Throw a loincloth around my narrow hips and I was ready for my close-up.

 My looks came to me naturally. My mother was a member of a local tribe called the Pomocatans and my father was a Lenape Indian from New Jersey. They’d met at a Powwow back in the days when Dad was a championship competitive dancer and were married a year later. I was born less than a year after that, and in a fit of Native pride I was named Jacy, which at the time my parents thought was Native American for ‘moon.' Turns out it isn't, and they're probably relieved now.

 I may have looked like your typical Hollywood Indian, but my life was far from it. Instead of living in a wigwam in a serene village, I lived with my family in a two story farm house in a small town in Maryland—and our home life was anything but serene. I was the oldest of six kids, and at sixteen, I was expected to take on a lot of responsibility. I didn’t really resent it, but my parents were pretty strict and their expectations were maybe just a little high. Between school, my part-time job at the Dairy Queen, and my family responsibilities, I didn’t have much time for myself.

 I moved away from the mirror and groaned softly as I remembered what day it was: Sunday. See, my family is very religious. Before you start conjuring up images of me in a sweat lodge, it’s important to know that shortly after I was born, my parents “found the Lord” (who knew he was missing?) and became born-again Baptists. This meant that in a few hours, we’d all bundle into the family van and set off to Sunday School. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t really have a problem with God or church or whatever, but I haven’t really decided if it’s all for me just yet. I resented being told what to believe without being allowed any say in the matter.

 I walked over to the window and lightly touched the painting sitting on the easel. Still wet. Art was my therapy. Whenever I needed to get away for a while, I’d lock myself in my room and paint. Oil paintings were scattered around my room, leaning against the walls, propped up on my dresser, and stacked under my bed, even in my closet. I guess if I had to categorize my work, which I was loathe to do, I would have to call it abstract.  Some of the images were recognizable if you used your imagination, but some were just designs that held significance to no one but me, expressions of my emotional state at the time they were created. Only a few close friends had ever seen my paintings, and none of them had known quite what to make of them. Not even my family had seen them. I bought all my own supplies, which was the main purpose of my part-time job.

 I moved the canvas on the easel off to one side and propped up a new one; its crisp whiteness a little intimidating at first. I’d prepped the canvas already, so I could just start painting. I squeezed out some fresh pigment onto my palette, dipped in my brush, and began to paint. I’d chosen dark, brooding colors to match my mood.

      I slowly got lost in the creative trance I seem to slip into when I’m painting. I didn’t notice as the room started to brighten with the sunrise, or when the sounds of my family waking up began. The next thing I knew, Mom was banging on my door. “Jacy, are you up?” she called, causing me to jump as my concentration was broken.

 I blinked in confusion for a second before answering. “Yeah, I’m up,” I called back.

 “You’d better get a shower now or you won’t have time for breakfast,” she said. I listened to her footsteps retreating down the hall as I stared at the almost completed painting before me.

 Consciously, I hadn’t been painting anything in particular, but apparently my subconscious had been busy. The painting was all dark blues, purples, and black; dark vertical stripes against an only slightly lighter background. It was very foreboding and it didn't take much imagination to recognize this painting; it was the setting from my dream. With a sigh, I dropped my brush in the jar of paint thinner and painfully forced my cramped fingers to open. I’d been painting for hours without a break and my hands were complaining bitterly.

 I picked up the painting and carried it to my closet, where I carefully set at the front of the stack of paintings I kept there. I called them my Nightmare Series. I had one for every time I’d had the nightmare since I started painting about a year ago. They all bore a striking similarity but only a few were finished, and those had been painted all in one sitting. I never went back to them; in fact, I never looked at them again once they were put away in the closet.

 I closed the closet door and went to get ready for church.

* * *

 Isn’t it funny how you can look back on your life and see how, if certain things hadn’t happened exactly as they did, your life would have turned out so drastically different? Things that seem so terribly insignificant at the time turn out to be major life altering events when looked at from the right perspective and the things that seem of such great consequence often lose their importance with time. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s the little things you have to watch out for.

 It was a couple days after I’d had the last nightmare and I was working at Dairy Queen after school. I was at the front counter, which meant I was taking orders, serving ice cream, making milkshakes and so on. It’s always busier at the front counter during hot weather and today wasn’t an exception. I’d just served up two ice cream cones when they walked in.

 I’d seen the girl around at school. She’d been in a couple of my classes, but I couldn’t remember her name. She was an attractive girl, dark chocolate skin, glossy black hair that she now wore tied back with a colorful scarf, warm brown eyes behind small glasses. It was her friend that caught my attention however. He was tall and thin, short dark hair that he wore carefully messy, dark brown eyes under impossibly long, dark lashes, and his skin tone was the same as mine. I knew immediately that he had to be an American Indian as well. I’d never seen him before, I was sure I would remember him if I had.

 I couldn’t seem to tear my eyes away from him as they approached the counter. What was going on with me? I’d seen better looking guys than him before, but they’d never captured my attention like this. There was just something about him, something that I couldn’t look away from. Thank goodness, neither of them had so much as glanced in my direction; they seemed to be caught up in an argument of some sort.

 “I don’t know why it’s such a big deal,” the girl was saying in a very annoyed tone of voice.

 “All I said was that I didn’t want to meet him,” he snapped back, his eyes flashing with barely controlled anger. “You’re the one making a big deal out of this.”

 “Two chocolate chip cookie dough Blizzards,” she ordered, still without looking in my direction. As I made the desserts, I continued to shamelessly eavesdrop. Hey, if you’re going to have a loud argument in a public place you should expect to be overheard.

 “Why don’t you want to meet him?” she demanded.

 “Why do I have to give you a reason? Why can’t you just accept that I don’t want to? Maybe I have reasons I don’t want to share with you.”

 “I thought I was your best friend.”

 “Oh for God’s sake, you’re such a drama queen.”

 “I’m a drama queen? Hello, Pot? This is Kettle calling.”

 “It’s not like you tell me every little detail about your life.”

 “I practically do. I just don’t understand why you can’t tell me why. He’s such a nice guy.”

 “I didn’t say he wasn’t a nice guy.”

 “Then why won’t you meet him?”

 “Can we just drop this? Please?”

 They fell into an uneasy silence as I thought about their words. Could he be gay? It sure sounded like it from their conversation. I didn’t know any gay guys personally, although there were a few at my school. I’d certainly never considered myself gay. I was attracted to girls even though I’d never dated—my parents thought I was too young. I’d never really been attracted to guys…at least before now.

 I glanced over my shoulder to find him watching me appraisingly. I felt a blush immediately spring to my cheeks as my head snapped back around. Luckily, my skin tone is dark enough that a blush doesn’t show easily. He probably knew I’d been listening now. How embarrassing. I concentrated on their Blizzards, which were almost done.

 “It’s because he’s chubby, isn’t it?” the girl snapped just as I was turning around with their finished desserts.

 The guy gave a huge beleaguered sigh. “Look, he’s just not my type, ok?” He gave me a smoldering smile, and I almost tripped over my feet. “Unlike him,” he said deliberately locking his eyes with mine.

 If I hadn’t set the Blizzards down already, I’m sure I would have dropped them. As it was, my mouth went dry and I suddenly couldn’t seem to remember what to do next.

 The girl gave me an exasperated look. “How much do I owe you?” she asked slowly, as if she was talking to a mentally challenged child.

 I shook myself a bit and quickly rang them up with a shaking hand.

 “I’ll get it,” the guy said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a wallet. He counted out the exact change, his fingers scraping suggestively against my palm as he handed me the money. He smiled again as they turned to go.

 “I don’t know why you do that,” his friend hissed.

 “Do what?” he asked innocently, shooting me a final glance over his shoulder.

 “Mess with poor boys’ heads like that.”

 “Don’t start.”

 I watched as they left, still arguing as they went. I wondered if that was how they always were and, if so, why they were friends in the first place.

 I took the next person’s order, but kept an eye on the two of them as they walked across the parking lot. I was filling a cup with soda when I felt the hairs on the back of my neck suddenly stand up. I spun around to see the guy and girl still arguing. She’d stopped walking and he was slowly backing away from her, gesturing angrily with one hand. While I watched, he reached the curb without realizing it and stumbled off…right into the path of an oncoming bright red car. I watched in horror as the car threw his body into the air like a rag doll. I couldn’t hear from inside, but imagined the sickening thud as he slammed into the ground and lay there unmoving.

 I gave a strangled shout and dropped the soda. I couldn’t believe no one else even seemed to notice what had happened right outside. I leaped over the counter and ran for the door, exploding out into the intense humidity of the September afternoon. I came to a skidding halt as I realized they were both standing in the middle of the parking lot, still arguing. What was going on? Had I imagined that whole scene?

 Their words were lost to me as I stood there trying to figure out if I was losing my mind. I rubbed my face, and when I dropped my hands, the guy had started slowly backing away from the girl, gesturing angrily with one hand. I felt a chill sweep over my entire body as the hair on my neck once more stood up on end. My mouth worked for a few seconds but nothing came out.

 Just as he was about to step back off the curb I found my voice. “Hey!” I yelled.

 He stopped and his eyes met mine as the girl turned to give me a look that clearly said, “Drop dead.” The red car drove by harmlessly behind the boy. I registered all this with half a thought, since most of my brain had stopped thinking about anything else the second his eyes had met mine.

 “What?” the girl demanded.

 “I…you…” I had no idea what to say now. My mind went completely blank. “Be careful crossing the street,” I finished weakly.

 The guy raised one eyebrow as a slow, sultry smile spread across his face. “We’ll do that,” he said, his voice making the words sound impossibly sexy. “Thanks for the reminder.” He turned and made an exaggerated point of looking both ways, then turned back to me. “How’s that?” he asked.

 My face was burning in what I was sure had to be a visible blush this time. Great, now he thought I was a complete nutcase. And maybe I was. I still didn’t understand what had just happened. Of course, why did it even matter what he thought of me. I’d probably never seen him again. Instead of answering, I turned and walked back inside. My manager was waiting at the counter.

 “What was that about?” she asked, sounding rather irritated.

 “I…” Once again I was at a loss for words. What was I supposed to say? That I’d had some weird psychic moment, seen the future, and rushed out to save a life? Yeah right. I didn’t even buy that one. “I thought I was going to get sick,” I managed to say. Come to think of it, I just might.

 I must have looked as bad as I felt, because she seemed to accept my excuse. She really wasn’t a bad boss at all. She pressed a hand to my forehead. “Maybe you should just go home for the day, get some rest.”

 I nodded gratefully and slipped off my apron. That sounded like a great idea.

 “What are you doing home early?” Mom asked brusquely as I came through the back door.

 I sighed. Mom was okay, but she wasn’t the most maternal woman you’ll ever meet. She could definitely be a little controlling at times. I was basically a good kid so it didn’t bother me too much, but she often gave my younger brother Michael a hard time.

 “I was feeling sick at work so they sent me home,” I said.

 Mom’s eyes narrowed. “Then you’d better go on up to your room,” she said quickly. “I don’t want some virus going through the whole house.”

 I wasn’t about to argue. I climbed the stairs to the second floor and quickly shut myself into my room. Being the oldest had its advantages. I’m the only one with a room to myself. My two younger brothers, Michael, who is fourteen, and Raphael, eleven, share one room. So do my three little sisters, the twins Gabrielle and Ariel were nine and the baby of the family Dina, who is five-years-old.

 I threw myself across my bed and allowed myself to think about what had happened at work for the first time. Not that I had any idea what had happened. None of it made any sense to me. Or it did, but my mind refused to accept the obvious explanation. I didn’t believe in all that psychic mumbo-jumbo…did I? I was so confused. I pondered it all for a while before finally just deciding to ignore it. It’s not like I ever talked to the girl and chances were that I’d never see the guy again. I felt a strange pang of regret at that last thought.

 What was it about that guy that had so totally swept me away? There was no way I could be gay. Mom and Dad would totally freak out. Besides, I liked girls. A nagging voice at the back of my mind suggested that maybe I was bisexual, but I quickly told it to shut up and mind its own business.

 I thought about trying to paint, but I wasn’t really in the mood. I dozed off eventually and didn’t wake up until someone tapped on my door.

 “Huh?” I grunted groggily.

 The door opened and Michael stuck his head in. “Mom wanted me to see if you want dinner,” he said.

 I blinked at him for a second before the words sank in. “Yeah, I guess,” I said, sitting up.

 He pushed the door open and came in with a plate piled with food. “Thought you might so I made you a plate,” he said with a grin.

 “I can’t eat all that,” I protested.

 His grin grew wider. “I know. I’ll help you.”

 I couldn’t help but laugh. Mikey seemed to be at that age when his stomach turned into a bottomless pit. He could consume huge amounts of food and still not be full.

 “Mom still doesn’t want me around the rest of the family?” I asked as I cleaned off the small table I kept next to the easel to hold all my art supplies.

 “Nope. She’s not taking any risks. Apparently, I’m an acceptable loss.”

 I laughed again. Mom and Michael were constantly butting heads. It wasn’t that he was a bad kid, but he was definitely headstrong and determined to do things his own way.

 I pulled the table over to the bed to we could both sit and eat. As he set down the huge plate of food, I noticed his eyes drinking in every detail of the room. He didn’t come in my room very often, and when he did it was usually only for a few seconds to give me some message from Mom or Dad. I suddenly felt very self-conscious.

 His eyes fell on the painting sitting on the easel. It was my latest work-in-progress, a loosely interpreted landscape using bright primary colors.

 “So this is what you do when you lock yourself up in here?”

 I nodded. He stood up to get a closer look. “Be careful; it’s still wet,” I said when he reached for it. He observed it quietly for a few minutes, then turned his attention to some of the other canvases I had stacked around the room. The food was all but forgotten; his reaction to my work my only thought.

 After several minutes of inspection, he turned to me with a surprised expression. “These are really good.”

 “Seriously?”

 “Totally. I had no idea you had artistic talent. I don’t know what I expected, I mean, I knew you painted because you’re always bringing home art supplies, but I didn’t expect this. I figured that since you didn’t let anyone see them that they must be awful. You should get Aunt Lily to look at these.”

 I snorted. Aunt Lily was my mom’s younger sister. To say they didn’t get along would be an understatement. Technically, Mom didn’t get along with any of her four sisters, who are all named after flowers, in order from oldest to youngest: Daisy, Violet, Rose, Lily and Jasmine. There seemed to be a special antipathy for Lily, however.

 The only time we ever saw my aunts was at family events like Christmas and Thanksgiving or the occasional wedding or funeral. I didn’t know exactly why Aunt Lily and Mom didn’t get along, but they always made a rather obvious effort to avoid each other at family functions. Actually, I didn’t know much about Aunt Lily at all except that she was an artist—which, I assume, is why Michael brought her up.

 “Mom would flip if she knew I had seen Aunt Lily,” I scoffed.

 “So don’t let her find out. She has no idea that I hang out with David.” David was Aunt Violet’s youngest son. He was the same age as Michael and they went to school together.

 “I didn’t even know you hang out with David.”

 “See, it can be done.”

 “I’ll think about it,” I said as I started eating again. We chatted about the paintings, Michael pointing out which ones he liked the most, while he devoured most of the food. When the plate was clean, he said good night and left me alone.

 Once the thought had been planted in my head, I found I couldn’t think of anything else but showing them to someone who knew about art. Were my paintings really that good? What would Aunt Lily think of them? I decided to slip one of my smaller paintings out soon and take it to her to see what she thought...if I could find out where she lived.

 With that decision taken care of, my thoughts wandered back to the guy from earlier, which was exactly what I didn’t want to think about. I needed to distract myself and painting seemed like the perfect solution. I set my table back up, picked up my brush, and stared at the landscape on the easel. It was far from finished, but it wasn’t speaking to me right now. I moved it off to one side and set up another, smaller canvas that was prepped and ready. I stared at it a moment, waiting for it to tell me what to do. Inspiration struck me all at once and I was off.

* * *

 It was several days later when the next life altering event took place. It couldn’t have seemed less significant at the time; it was just another ordinary school assignment: research your family history and write a ten-page paper about your findings. We were supposed to interview older family members and go back as many generations as possible. Piece of cake, right? Yeah, I thought so too.

 My first stop—Mom—was like hitting a brick wall. “The past should stay in the past,” she said in the tone of voice she used to let you know she’d said all she planned to say on a certain subject. “Why do you need to know anyway?”

 “It’s for a school project,” I explained.

 She pursed her lips. Grades were a big deal in my family. “Well, they can’t fail you if you just don’t know,” she said after a moment’s hesitation. I read clearly into that hesitation—she knew, she didn’t want to tell me. Now my curiosity had been piqued.

 I decided to go over Mom’s head. I drove myself over to Grandma Allen’s house. Grandma Allen is my maternal grandmother. She’s your typical grandmother type, complete with wrinkles and shoulder length white hair. I’ve always thought she was quite beautiful. She carried herself with a kind of elegant grace. She lived alone in a small well-kept house in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Grandpa Allen had died when I was too young to really remember him.

 Grandma Allen was surprised to see me and even more surprised by my questions. She immediately became evasive.

 “What has your mother told you?” she asked delicately. We were sitting on a big comfortable couch in her living room. The whole house was comfortable. It just seemed to exude a sense of peace and calm.

 “Nothing,” I answered. “She said the past should be kept in the past.”

 Grandma sighed. “That sounds like your mother. She never could seem to understand that we must learn from the past in order to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.” She reached over and patted my hand. “I’d like to tell you the things you want to know, but your mother and I have struggled with our relationship over the years. We’ve found a sort of peace in recent years and I’d hate to do anything to upset that.”

 I nodded, but my face must have betrayed my disappointment.

 “However,” she said with a small smile. “I know someone who wouldn’t hesitate a second to go behind your mother’s back…”

 I raised an eyebrow inquisitively.

 “Why don’t you talk to Lily?”

 “She could help me?”

 “She’s done a lot of genealogy work. She probably knows the family better than I do.”

 “I didn’t know that,” I said thoughtfully. It seemed like everything was pushing me towards Aunt Lily these days.

 “Do you know where she lives?” Grandma asked.

 “No, I’ve never been to her house.”

 She stood up and left the room for a minute. When she returned, she was carrying a small notepad and a pen. She sat back down and began to write. After a few seconds, she ripped off the page and handed it to me. I looked down to find detailed directions to Aunt Lily’s house.

 “Do you think you’ll go today?” Grandma asked.

 “Probably not,” I told her.

 “But you will go see her?”

 “Yes.”

 She nodded. “Good. Now come on in to the kitchen. I have some cookies I made this morning.”

* * *

 It was Friday before I managed to get to Aunt Lily’s house. I ended up taking two paintings with me. One was the landscape I’d been working on and finally finished, and the other was the last painting I’d done, the one I’d started the day the guy was almost run over in front of Dairy Queen. It had turned out to be an abstract figure of a nude male done in shades of blues and white. It was very different from anything I’d ever done, but I was quite pleased with it.

 Grandma’s directions turned out to be quite easy to follow. Lily lived in the country in a big two-story white farmhouse. Towering pecan trees were scattered around a sprawling lawn. As I pulled into the driveway, I noticed a large barn in back.

 I was out of the car and halfway to the front door when a large, wooly, white bear came barreling around the corner. At least that’s what I thought when I first saw it. I quickly realized it was just an enormous shaggy dog, but I wasn’t sure if that was any better. I froze in place, unsure if I should make a break for the car or what. Was he aggressive?

 When he caught sight of me, the colossal canine came to shuddering halt. He eyed me uncertainly from beneath a heavy fringe of hair for a few moments. He must have come to the conclusion that I was no threat however, because his entire rump—he didn’t seem to have a tail—started to wiggle back and forth as he lumbered over to me, mouth agape in a friendly doggy grin. I rubbed his head and was surprised to find that his fur was quite soft.

 “I see you’ve met Elmo,” a voice said, causing me to jump. I looked up to find Aunt Lily coming around the same corner. As if she had read my mind, Aunt Lily continued, “Ironically, his name means ‘protector’, but your only worry with him is that he might lick you to death. He’d be the first to run and hide if you posed any real threat.” By now she’d reached the two of us and she rubbed Elmo’s head affectionately. He beamed up at her with a look of total devotion.

 Aunt Lily was in her thirties. She wore her long, straight brown hair in a braid hanging down her back almost to her waist. She was a little taller than me and very slender. 

 “He’s gigantic,” I said. “What kind of dog is he?”

 “Shh,” she said with a wink. “Don’t let him hear you call him a dog. He thinks he’s a person. He’s an Old English sheepdog.”

 I’d stopped petting him, which apparently didn’t sit well with him since he suddenly butted me with his huge head, causing me to stumble. Aunt Lily laughed.

 “He likes to be the center of attention. Come on back to my studio.” She started back the way she’d come and Elmo and I rushed after her. It occurred to me that she didn’t seem the least bit surprised that I was here. I assumed Grandma must have let her know I’d be coming.

 She led us to the old barn in the back yard, which I realized now had been converted to her studio. As we ducked inside, I was expecting to find a typical dusty barn. I was surprised to find she’d completely remodeled the interior. It was open now to the roof, where several expansive skylights had been installed, letting in lots of natural light. The floor was poured concrete and the walls had been covered with sheetrock. The whole place was air conditioned. A large potter’s wheel stood in the center of the room. A table nearby held an assortment of small metal tools that looked like a cross between dental instruments and torture devices. A counter built along the wall held several unglazed pots, a large lump of clay, and various bottles and jars. A shiny metal, barrel-shaped contraption stood against the back wall. Aunt Lily followed my gaze.

 “That’s my kiln,” she said. “I was just about to start my last pot for the day. I have an order I have to fill by next week so if you don’t mind, I’ll work while we talk.”

 “That’s fine,” I said, looking around for somewhere to sit. I found a stool by the counter and brought it closer to the wheel. Aunt Lily slammed the lump of clay into the center of the wheel and started it spinning. Elmo flopped down nearby and started snoring almost immediately.

 “So talk,” she said as she dipped her hands in water and began to shape the clay with her fingers.

 “I, uh, had a couple things I wanted to talk to you about."

 She glanced up at me, her eyes twinkling with amusement. “Calm down, Jacy. Contrary to what your mother has probably told you, I don’t bite. I know you want to talk to me about our family, but that can wait. What’s the other thing?”

 “I, uh, paint,” I said feeling very lame indeed. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea.

 “Paint what?” Her eyes were glued to the clay, which was slowly beginning to rise between her hands, almost as if it were alive. “Houses? Paintings? The town red?”

 “Paintings."

 “Cool. Artistic ability seems to run in our family. What medium?”

 “Oils.”

 “What style?”

 “Abstract.”

 “Do you speak in sentences longer than one word?”

 I felt my face heat up. “I brought a couple with me. I thought maybe you could take a look at them and tell me if they’re any good.”

 “Sure. Why don’t you bring them in?”

 When I stood up, Elmo’s head immediately came up.

 “He’ll probably accompany you,” Aunt Lily said, still not looking up.

 Sure enough, when I started for the door, Elmo lurched to his feet and followed eagerly after me. He trotted along with me all the way to the car and back, his enthusiasm never flagging for a second. Once back inside, he reclaimed his earlier spot on the floor and once again commenced snoring.

 Aunt Lily had molded the clay into a definite pot form while I was gone. Its shape was beginning to emerge and it looked as if it would be a squat round pot.

 “Hold one of them up,” she said. I did as she asked, holding up the landscape first. She tore her eyes off the clay long enough to look over the painting. Her eyes widened a bit when she saw it. She quickly turned off the wheel.

 “What about the pot?” I asked.

 “I can throw it later. I want a closer look at this.” She quickly rinsed her hands off and dried them on a towel, before reaching out for the painting. “May I?”

 I handed it to her and stood by while she examined it closely. After a few seconds, she said, “You said you brought a couple?”

 I handed her the other one, to which she gave equal attention. I shifted nervously from foot to foot while she looked them over. Finally, she looked up at me. “Have you had any formal art training?”

 “Just a few classes in school."

 “Good,” she said. “Don’t get any.”

 My heart fell. She must think I’m hopeless, I thought despondently.

 “These are incredible,” she said.

 I must have misheard. “What did you say?”

 “I said these are incredible. You have a very powerful, naturalistic style. Formal art training would probably ruin you.”

 “So…they’re good?”

 “No, you aren’t listening. They’re incredible. I’d like to show these to a friend of mine. Would you mind?”

 “I don’t know. Not many people have seen my paintings.”

 “How many do you have?”

 I shrugged. “I don’t know, between one and two hundred, I guess.”

 “One or two hundred?” she repeated with disbelief.

 I nodded.

 “Where are all these paintings?”

 “In my bedroom.”

 “Where do you sleep?”

 I laughed. “There’s room. They’re stacked up everywhere—against the walls, on top of my dresser, under the bed, in the closet…”

 She shook her head. “Unbelievable. Will you trust me with these two? I promise to take good care of them.”

 I nodded reluctantly. I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone else to see them, they felt so intensely personal, but it seemed silly to refuse.

 She carried them over to the counter and stood them carefully to one end, away from the pots.

 “Okay,” she said as she turned back to me. “Now, the other reason why you came to see me behind my dear sister’s back.”

 All of a sudden, I felt very nervous, as if something momentous was about to happen. Mom was hiding something from me and I was about to find out what.

 “Aunt Lily…” I started, but she raised her hand to stop me.

 “It’s Lily, not Aunt Lily. That makes me feel old. Go on.”

 “Lily,” I started again. It felt weird to call her by just her first name. “I know there’s something Mom doesn’t want me to find out, but I feel like I have to know. Do you understand?”

 She nodded. “I probably understand better than you think. I wasn’t sure I was going to tell you either, but now that I’ve met you, well, I think you deserve to know. More importantly, I think you’re ready to know.”

 “Know what?” I asked impatiently.

 She studied me for a second. “You’ve never been to a powwow, have you?”

 I blinked at the sudden change of subject. “Uh, no."

 She pursed her lips in a way that reminded me of my mother. “Figures. It’s a part of your heritage. If you want to learn about your family, you need to start by understanding where we come from. Our powwow is this weekend. It starts tomorrow actually. Can you get away to meet me there?”

 “Where is it? And what time?”

 “It’s not far from here, at the state park. And it goes all day, what time can you meet me?”

 “I get off work at three.”

 “That’s perfect. Some of the crowd will have thinned out by then. Meet me there at three-thirty.”

 “How will I find you?”

 “It won’t be that hard, but I’ll probably be in the arts and crafts tent. I help run it. Does that work?”

 I nodded.

 “Great, then it’s settled. I’ll see you tomorrow and we’ll begin your education.”

 “Aunt…I mean, Lily, my paper is due in two weeks.”

 “Right. It’ll be a crash course then. I hate to run you off, but I need to get this pot finished now and start glazing those others.”

 “It’s okay. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.” I stood up and shifted awkwardly, trying to decide how to say goodbye. Lily solved my dilemma by throwing her arms around me in a hug. Elmo jumped up and tried to wriggle in between us. We both laughed.

 “He can’t stand to be left out. See you tomorrow, Jacy."

 Tomorrow, I thought as I left. Tomorrow I would begin learning about the part of my heritage that my parents—or more specifically, my mother—had decided not to teach me. And soon, I’d learn the big secret everyone seemed to be determined to hide. A feeling of anticipation was building inside me that I couldn’t explain. I just had a feeling that something big was coming and nothing would be the same again once it arrived.

* * *

 I stood in front of my closet debating what to wear. What was appropriate attire for finding out your family’s deepest, darkest secret? For that matter, what was proper attire for a powwow? I blindly grabbed a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and pulled them on. It’s not like I had a lot to choose from anyway. With six kids, my parents didn’t have a lot of money to spend on fashion, and most of my money went to art supplies.

 Once dressed, I slipped quietly downstairs. I was hoping to make it out of the house without Mom giving me the third degree since she would demand to know where I was going and would no doubt flip out if I told her I was going to a powwow. I hated lying and I was no good at it anyway so there really wasn’t much point. I lucked out and she was on the phone gossiping with one of her church friends, so I was able to make a clean escape.

 Or so I thought.

 Even though we didn’t have a lot of money, my parents had found it convenient to get a third car for me. Not out of any consideration for my needs, but because it meant they wouldn’t have to drive me everywhere, they could send me out on errands, and they didn’t have to share a car with me. I had to maintain it, however. It wasn’t much—just a slightly beat-up 1989 Honda Civic—but it ran, and it was mine, and that was enough for me. I pulled open the car door to find Michael and a girl tangled in the back seat.

 “What the hell?” I gasped as they both struggled to situate clothing and tuck various body parts back where they belonged.

 “Jacy!” Michael yelped. “Don’t tell Mom!”

 “What are you doing in my car?” I quickly realized what a stupid question that was. It was obvious what they’d been doing, and knowing Michael, he’d tell me in detail. “Never mind,” I added quickly. “I can see what you were doing. Mom will kill you if she finds out.”

 “That why I asked you not to tell her.”

 “What if she had been the one to catch you?”

 “She never drives your car. She calls it a piece of junk.”

 “Still...right here? In my car?”

 I’d been avoiding looking at the girl but risked a glance in her direction now. She was looking everywhere but at me, but I recognized her easily enough. She lived a few houses down and had a reputation for being easy. A well-earned reputation, apparently.

 Michael shrugged with a cheeky grin.

 “It’s not funny,” I snarled. “Get out--both of you. And I’m locking the car from now on. I don’t even want to know how many times you’ve done this before.”

 I think he realized I really was angry at this point. “I’m sorry, Jacy,” he said as he climbed out, looking only slightly disheveled. The girl climbed out after him, eyes still averted. “Look, it won’t happen again, I promise.”

 “I know it won’t, because if it does and I find out, you won’t have to worry about Mom killing you—I’ll do it for her. Damn, now I have to get the backseat disinfected.”

 “Don’t be so uptight, Jace,” he said, struggling to keep from grinning again. “We were just fooling around. Just cuz you don’t do it…”

 “Keep it up and I’ll tell Mom,” I warned. He blanched at that. The girl seemed to have gotten bored because she suddenly turned and started walking away without a word.

 “Andrea, wait!” Michael called after her.

 “Screw yourself,” she snapped as she flipped him a rather rude and dismissive gesture and kept walking.

 I chuckled. “I guess that’s what you’ll be doing tonight,” I said as I climbed into the car. “I have to go, but this isn’t over. We’ll talk about this later.”

 Michael groaned. “Great, just what I need: a sex talk from my freakishly prudish big brother.”

 “Or it could come from Mom and Dad…”

 He sighed. “We’ll talk later.”

 I shut the door and turned the key in the ignition. It came to life with a sputtering cough and I was on my way.

 Michael’s sexual escapades had momentarily distracted me from my worrying, but now that I was alone, my anxiety came back with a vengeance. I tried turning on the radio and cranking it up loud, but not even Beyoncé could lift my spirits.

 I had no idea what Lily was going to tell me, but my overactive imagination had been busy coming up with all sorts of horrible scenarios. The one that seemed to best fit what little I knew was that I was adopted. Actually, that one really wasn’t so bad. It would at least explain why I was so different from everyone else in my family. The only problem was that I looked too much like my mom’s side of the family. Or maybe Dad wasn’t really my father. Maybe I was a child of rape or Mom had an affair or something like that. That might explain why Dad never seemed very interested in me. On the other hand, Dad was sort of distant with all us kids, not just me in particular.

 My mind kept offering up one possibility after another, each one darker than the one before, until I finally reached the site of the powwow. It was held in a wooded part of the local state park. There were several people milling about directing parking and taking admission. Lily hadn’t mentioned paying to get in. I dug out my wallet, hoping I’d have enough cash to get in. I did, but barely.

 I followed the crowds toward the actual powwow site. Once there, I just stopped and took it all in for a minute. I was a little shocked at the size of the crowd. There were easily hundreds—and maybe thousands—of people present, many in full regalia, something I’d only seen on TV before this. There was some sort of demonstration going on in the center of a large roped off circle, a group of drummers sat off to one side pounding a large hide-covered drum and chanting. The drumming seemed to pull at me, and I found myself moving steadily closer to the circle, squeezing between the other spectators.

 I stopped just short of the rope and watched a young man not much older than me whirling rapidly around the circle. He was wearing only leather and feathers--and not much of either--but it was his dancing that held me enthralled. His feet almost seemed a blur as he executed the elaborate footwork.

 I was watching his feet so closely, it took me a minute to realize I'd seen the boy before. It was the guy from work. The one who'd flirted so outrageously with me. The one I'd embarrassed myself so badly in front of after my strange psychic moment. I turned to walk away before he could spot me.

 “He’s good, isn’t he?” someone asked from nearby. I turned to see an older woman sitting in a lawn chair. Her gray hair was held back with a leather thong, and she was wearing a brightly patterned cotton dress. She smiled at me and nodded toward the young dancer.

 I nodded. “He’s very good.”

 “He’s my grandson,” she said, pride glowing in her voice. “Not too many of the young ones dance these days. There are only a few others in his league. He has a good chance of winning this year.”

 “It’s a competition?” I asked.

 “Oh yes,” she said, sounding surprised. “Not right now, of course. This is just exhibition dancing. Is this your first time here?”

 I nodded again.

 She looked confused for a minute. “You’re of the blood though, right?”

 It was my turn to look confused.

 “You’re Indian?” she clarified.

 “Oh. Yes.”

 She smiled again. “Thought so. At least I’m not that feeble yet. You look a bit familiar. Do you have a name?”

 I blushed at my bad manners and extended my hand. “I’m sorry. My name is Jacy Elliott.”

 She took my hand as her eyes widened. “You’re Glen and Rose’s oldest?”

 “You know my parents?”

 “Let’s just say that I’m no longer surprised that this is your first time at a powwow,” she said with a kind smile. “I’m glad you’re here now. It’s good that you are trying to learn about your heritage.”

 I decided not to enlighten her that it had been Lily’s idea and simply smiled.

 She watched her grandson for a few seconds while I shuffled awkwardly, then she said, “You know, your father used to be quite a competitor.” As hard as I tried, I just couldn’t picture my father out here dancing. “He was quite a loss when he and Rose stopped attending the events. You were just a tiny baby at the time.” I noticed she didn’t say that Mom was a loss.

 The conversation dried up, and we watched in silence while her grandson finished dancing.

 “I have to go find my aunt now,” I told her quickly, in case he looked our way. “It was nice meeting you.”

 She smiled at me again. “The pleasure was mine. And by the way, my name is Celia Vessey. Tell Lily I said hello.”

 I stopped, startled. “How’d you know it was Lily that I was going to find?”

 She laughed. “Because she’s the only one of those girls that still comes to the powwows.”

 Feeling rather foolish, I said goodbye and went to find the arts and crafts tent. There were quite a few tents set up around the perimeter of the powwow grounds, most set in a rough circle that echoed the one at its center. The majority of the booths held various Native-style jewelry, clothes, and books. Some of the jewelry was high quality, but some of it looked as if it had been mass-produced in China. There were several booths selling a flat piece of fried dough called fry bread. It looked and smelled delicious, but I’d used almost all my money just to get in and couldn’t afford to buy any.

 It took a little while, but I finally found the arts and crafts tent, which was slightly larger than the others and marked with a sign that read: “Local Artists and Craftspeople. A portion of the proceeds goes to the tribal association.”

 I slipped inside and found that the tent was pretty much deserted except for Lily, two older women in canvas director’s chairs, a middle-aged man who was browsing, and the dancer from earlier still wearing full regalia and facing away from me, his tanned bare back arched gracefully as he bent to look closer at a painting.

 I started to turn around and leave. I'd come back later after he left, but then I noticed the painting he was looking at so intently. I gasped. It was my painting—the one of the male nude—and the landscape was hanging right next to it.

 At my gasp, Lily turned to see me. “Jacy!” she said, obviously pleased to see me. “I wasn’t sure you’d actually come.”

 The guy turned to face me as well. I felt my face flush as he arched an eyebrow. “Fancy meeting you here, Crossing Guard.”

 “You two know each other?” Lily asked, sounding very surprised.

 “No,” I said quickly.

 “We’ve not been formally introduced,” he said after a beat. “But we’ve met.”

 “Jacy, this is Skye Morgan. Skye, this is my nephew Jacy Elliott.”

 Skye held out his hand and I didn’t have a choice but to shake it. It felt like an electric shock as his hand touched mine.

 “That was his painting you were just looking at,” Lily went on, much to my horror.

 Skye’s eyes widened, and he turned back to the painting. “You did that?” He sounded impressed. He glanced back at me. “Nice work, Crossing Guard.”

 “Crossing guard?” Lily asked.

 Skye laughed. “Jacy stopped me the other day as I was leaving Dairy Queen to tell me to be careful crossing the street.”

 I don’t think I could have been any more embarrassed at that point. Lily looked at me with a questioning gaze, but I couldn’t even meet her eyes. I was wishing fervently that I’d never come to this stupid powwow.

 “Well, I’d like to stay and chat but I have to go get ready. I’m dancing again soon,” Skye said, his eyes never leaving my face. “Come see me. I’m good.” With a final smile, he left the tent. I stood staring after him, my heart pounding.

 “Smug bastard,” Lily said as soon as he was gone, but she was grinning as she said it. “He is good, and he damn well knows it. Still, you can’t help but like him.” She turned back to me and her grin widened. “I see you’re not immune to his charm.”

 I felt my blush deepen.

 “Don’t sweat it,” she said. “So what’s the whole story behind that crossing guard thing?”

 “There is no story,” I mumbled, unwilling to tell anyone about the strange occurrence.

 “Bullfeathers,” my aunt scoffed. “Give me a little credit. Unless you expect me to believe you just go around telling random strangers to be careful crossing the street. Or maybe it’s just the cute strangers?”

 “I don’t want to talk about it,” I said through gritted teeth.

 “Jacy, you’re going to have to trust me.”

 I threw a meaningful glance in the direction of the two older women who were pretending not to listen but obviously were. Much to my relief, Lily understood immediately.

 “Let’s go for a walk,” she suggested. She turned to the two women. “You two can hold down the fort while I’m gone, right?”

 They agreed, and Lily and I made our exit. Once outside, we walked aimlessly into the trees.

 “Okay, now let’s hear it,” she said.

 “First, why are my paintings in there? Were you trying to sell them?”

 “No, I brought it along to show to someone who was going to be here. I didn’t want to just set them on the ground so I hung them up. They’re clearly marked as not for sale, but if they were for sale I probably could have sold them several times over today.”

 “Really?” I asked, pleased in spite of myself.

 “Yes, really. They’ve been getting a lot of attention today, much to the dismay of the two old biddies you saw in there. They’re both artists, and several of the other paintings are theirs. If you ask me, they’re a little jealous. But anyway, what happened with Skye?”

 I sighed. There was going to be no getting around it. I quickly told her the whole story, trying to gloss over the vision as much as possible. When I was finished, she walked quietly for a few minutes. Finally, she said, “I think I made the right decision bringing you here today.”

 I looked over at her. “What do you mean?”

 She stopped walking. “Jacy, you’ve been raised white. Rose and Glen made that choice when you were just a baby and they became religious—and, as adults, that was their prerogative. But by doing so, they denied you your culture. You know nothing about who you are, but, as the saying goes, blood always tells. Just because you don’t know about your heritage doesn’t make who you are go away. There are…let’s just say there are certain hereditary traits awakening in you right now.”

 “I don’t understand.”

 “No, you wouldn’t, but if you want to, I’ll try to help you understand.”

 I thought about it a minute. “I do want to understand,” I said slowly. “I think I have to understand.”

 She smiled. “That’s what I was hoping you’d say. It won’t be easy though. And you’ll have to keep it a secret from your mom.”

 I nodded—that one I knew without being told.

 “Come on,” she said. “Let’s get back to the powwow. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

 We made our way back just in time to hear the emcee announce that Skye Morgan was about to give another demonstration of fancy dancing. I found myself trying to see through the crowd to the dance circle.

 Of course, Lily noticed. “Go watch him. I’ll go make sure the person I want you to meet is still here.”

 I stood indecisively as the drumming began until she gave me a gentle push in the direction of the circle. I glanced back to see her weaving away through the crowd, so I turned back to the circle and gently pushed my way once more to the rope. Skye had just begun to dance, but even knowing as little as I did about powwows and dancing, it didn’t take me long to realize he was amazing. Every move he made was filled with a pure fluid grace. Watching him now, it was easy to believe that there was some magic in dancing, that it really was some form of primitive communication between man and the gods. Or maybe not so primitive after all—no one watching Skye move could call what he was doing primitive—powerful, yes, sensual even, but not primitive.

 Transfixed by his dance, I watched unblinking while he moved faster and faster as the drums swelled to a heart-pounding crescendo, then stopped suddenly as Skye leaped impossibly high into the air, his body arched, his arms flung over his head. For a brief moment, it seemed as if he might keep rising, but gravity exerted its hold, and the drummers thumped the drum one last time as Skye’s feet touched the earth once more.

 The reverberation of the final beat still thrummed in the air as Skye raised his eyes, found me in the crowd, and gave me the same slow, smoldering smile he’d given me in the Dairy Queen. He stayed in the center of the circle until the applause began to die out, then walked directly towards me. He ducked under the rope and stood in front of me, breathing heavily. He was too close for my comfort, so close I could feel his body heat rolling off of him like steam. I tried to keep my eyes on his face, but his glistening chest heaving only inches away kept drawing my eyes south.

 “You didn’t clap,” he said.

 I blinked several times. “Sorry?”

 “Was I that bad?”

 “No! You were...incredible.” I bit the inside of my cheek when I heard the awed tone in my voice.

 He grinned. “You really think so?”

 I nodded.

 “Come on,” he said with a jerk of his head. “I need something to drink after that.”

 I followed him as he made his way towards one of the food booths, but our progress was slow as people kept stopping him to compliment him on his dancing. We finally made it to the booth and he bought a bottle of water. The smell of the fry bread was enough to distract me from Skye momentarily. Skye noticed right away.

 “You want anything?” he asked.

 “No, I’m okay,” I said quickly.

 “Have you ever had fry bread before?”

 I shook my head no.

 “Oh man, you’ve got to try it.” He ordered a piece of fry bread, and a steaming plate was handed over.

 “What do you want on it?” Skye asked, moving towards a small table set up to one side. It held an assortment of toppings: powdered sugar, honey, and jellies.

 “I don’t know. Just fix it how you usually do,” I said shyly.

 He poured on some honey then dusted it liberally with the powdered sugar. “Follow me,” he said, once he had it garnished to his liking. He led me a short distance from the hubbub to a picnic table that was lightly screened from the rest of the park area by a small stand of trees. He sat down on one side and patted the bench next to him. I obediently sat to his right. He tore off a piece of the bread and popped it in his mouth.

 “You’ve really never had this before?” he asked.

 “No,” I answered shortly. It was all I could manage. For some reason, my heart was hammering at my chest like it wanted out. It left me feeling tense, as if I sensed something was about to happen but didn’t know what.

 “You’re going to love it.” His eyes locked with mine. He tore off another chunk of bread and deliberately lifted it to my lips. Without thinking, I parted my lips, and he slipped the piece into my mouth. It was incredibly sensual, and I felt a stirring in my pants. I chewed automatically as he brought his fingers to his own lips and licked off the sugar and honey, his eyes never leaving mine for a second. I almost forgot to swallow.

 “What do you think?” he asked after a moment.

 “Huh?”

 His mouth twitched. “About the fry bread.”

 “Oh, uh…” I hadn’t even tasted it. “It was good.”

 He grinned knowingly. “Want more?”

 I nodded.

 Before I could reach for it myself, he’d broken off another piece and fed it to me. I was achingly hard by now and desperately hoping that Skye wouldn’t look down at my lap. I made a point to actually taste the bread this time and found it really was quite good. It reminded me a bit of the funnel cakes I’d had at carnivals as a kid, but better.

 “So Lily Snyder is your aunt?” he asked, startling me with the suddenness of the question.

 “Yeah,” I answered softly.

 “And you’ve never had fry bread before?”

 “This is my first time at a powwow.”

 His eyes grew wide with surprise. “Do you live around here?”

 “Yeah.”

 “How can you be local and Lily Snyder’s nephew and never have gone to a powwow?”

 I shrugged. “My parents don’t really get along with Lily and they never took me to a powwow. They’re pretty religious.”

 “So?” He frowned. “What’s that got to do with anything? It’s not like we’re out here worshipping the devil. We worship the same God. I even go to church…sometimes.”

 I shrugged again. I didn’t have the answers, and even if I did, I didn’t feel like defending my parents.

 “So your parents don’t know you’re here?” he asked after a minute.

 “Nope."

 He grinned. “Cool. The crossing guard is a rebel.”

 I flushed again at the reminder of our first meeting.

 The grin vanished in a blink, and he was all earnest sincerity. “Hey look, I’ll stop teasing you about that if you’ll explain what it was all about.”

 I shook my head no.

 “Come on. It’s been driving me crazy ever since it happened. I’ve almost gone down to the Dairy Queen and asked you a couple times. Ebony, my friend who was with me that day, thinks I’m being stupid and it’s only because you’re so cute…” My blush deepened at that. “…but that’s not it. Or at least it’s not all of it. I felt something really weird that day when I was looking into your eyes.”

 I looked away now and shook my head again. “I can’t.”

 “Why not?”

 “I don’t even understand what happened.”

 He watched me for a minute, then seemed to decide that I was telling him the truth. “Then why don’t you tell me what happened and maybe we can figure it out together.”

 A tingle went up my spine at the word ‘together’ and suddenly I did want to tell him. “I…after you left…I thought I saw you get hit by a car.” The expression on his face froze as I spoke the words. “When I ran outside though, you, uh, you weren’t even near the road. I was really confused, but then you started backing towards the road just like I thought I’d seen you do a few seconds before, so I yelled for you to stop. And then the car that I’d just seen hit you drove by.” I shuddered at the memory.

 The drums stopped behind us and Skye sat staring at me expressionlessly in the sudden hush. I started to babble to fill the silence. “I know it sounds stupid. I shouldn’t have even told you. Now you probably think I’m some sort of freak. I’ll just go.” I stood to leave, but Skye’s hand shot out and caught me by the wrist, pulling me gently back down.

 “You really don’t have any idea, do you?” he said in a quiet voice.

 “About what?”

 He shook his head slightly, almost to himself. “Never mind.” His voice was so soft I almost couldn’t hear him. He was looking at me differently now, with a new respect. He smiled suddenly.

 “What?” I asked defensively.

 “You just look so cute sitting there with that powdered sugar on your lips.”

 I swiped at my mouth, but his smile just grew. “You missed.” I wiped again. “Missed again. Here. I’ll get it.”

 He leaned slowly toward me. I knew what he was about to do, and I wasn’t at all sure I wanted him to do it, but somehow, I seemed unable to move. His lips pressed against mine, and for a moment, we were kissing.

 Then I snapped out of whatever spell I’d fallen under and jerked away, leaping to my feet, breathing as heavily as if I’d just finished a marathon. “I’d better go find Lily. She’s probably looking for me,” I gibbered as I backed slowly away. “There’s someone she wants me to meet. It was nice meeting you and thanks for the fry bread. It was really good.” Skye just watched me make my ungraceful exit with a half smile on his lips. “Bye,” I blurted as I spun around and practically ran away.

 “I’ll see you later,” he called after me.

 I threw myself back into the crowd, which had thinned out significantly since I’d first arrived but was still large enough to lose myself in. As I walked, scanning the faces for Lily, I tried to calm myself down. That was easier said than done since I could still feel his lips pressed against mine.

 It doesn’t mean anything, I told myself forcefully. He kissed you, you didn’t kiss him. My argument would have carried more weight if I’d resisted a little more...or liked it a little less. I’m not gay. I’d been attracted to plenty of girls over the years, both physically and emotionally. I’d never even looked at guy before now. The problem was, if I was honest with myself, I had to admit that I was more attracted to Skye than anyone I’d ever met. Did that make me gay?

 I was so caught up in my thoughts that I almost walked right into Lily.

 “There you are!” she said, grabbing me by the shoulders. “I’ve been looking all over for you. Where’ve you been?”

 “I was with Skye,” I said. I couldn’t read the expression that flickered across her face, but I quickly explained. “After he danced he bought me fry bread because I’d never had it before.”

 “That was nice of him,” she said carefully. “Jacy…” she started, then stopped.

 “What?” I asked.

 “Just…be careful with Skye.”

 I tried hard not to reveal anything with my face. “What do you mean?”

 She paused and seemed to be thinking about her next words. “Just that Skye is a very…compelling person. He’s a good kid, but…Oh, just be careful, okay?”

 “I don’t understand, but I’m always careful.”

 She looked over at me and gave me a sad smile. “Yeah, I can believe that. Well, come on. The person I want you to meet is still here.” She set off at a purposeful pace, and I hurried to keep up. She expertly maneuvered through the crowd, leading me to a small booth with a hand-lettered sign hanging in front: Handmade Soaps, Essential Oils, Teas, and Herbal Remedies. A white-haired old man sat behind a table laden with the advertised products. Another table at the back of his tent was stacked high with books.

 The man was talking to a customer as we approached, and it gave me a chance to study him. He looked to be in his seventies, his face weathered by time into creased leather. His hair was long and he wore it pulled back into a single braid and tied with bright red strips of cloth. Unruly white eyebrows created deep shadows across his dark eyes, which still looked as sharp as a hawk’s. His hands were steady and looked strong as he accepted the customer’s money and handed him his purchase, several small brown vials that I guessed to be essential oils.

 Business taken care of, he turned to look at us with a gentle smile. “Hello again Lily,” he said. His voice was warm and kind. I felt myself liking him instinctively. “Would I be correct in guessing that this young man is Jacy?”

 “You would,” she said with a smile. I could tell she was genuinely fond of the old man. “Jacy, I’d like to introduce you to Fletcher Snyder.”

 Snyder? That was Lily’s last name. I looked back and forth between Lily and the older man, trying to figure out the connection. Or was it just a coincidence? As far as I knew, Lily had never been married, but I wasn’t sure. The more I thought about it, though, I realized she must have been or else her last name would have been Allen like my mom's maiden name and my grandmother. So maybe this man was her father-in-law.

 Lily watched my face carefully. “Fletcher is my father,” she said softly.

 I closed my eyes as my head swirled. I opened them again and looked squarely at Lily. “What?”

 “This is my father.”

 “But Grandpa Allen…”

 “Grandpa Allen was my stepfather.”

 I shook my head, trying hard to understand. “But that means…” I turned to the old man.

 He nodded, still smiling gently. “I’m your grandfather.”

 I stared disbelievingly at the stranger sitting before me. How could he be my grandfather? I’d never met him before. I hadn’t even known he existed a few minutes before. I’d always believed that Grandpa Allen was my grandfather. My mind refused to accept this new bit of information. It was too much to believe that everyone I knew—everyone I trusted—had lied to me my entire life.

 Lily and...what did I call him? Mr. Snyder? Fletcher? Grandpa? Whoever he was, he and Lily were watching me carefully, wearing identical concerned expressions.

 Finally, I managed to find my voice. “How...?”

 They exchanged glances, their eyes seeming to have an entire conversation in just a few seconds.

 “Not here,” he said after a moment.

 Lily nodded. “Jacy, this is a conversation we should probably have somewhere else. Fletcher lives nearby. Would you be okay with going there to talk?”

 I nodded woodenly as some small part of my brain registered the fact that Lily called him Fletcher. Is that what they would expect me to call him too? I decided it would do for now anyway. At least I’d have something to call him in my own mind.

 I stood in shocked immobility while the two of them quickly packed his wares into cardboard boxes. It only took two boxes to pack his herbal items and a tarp was thrown over the book table. Lily plopped one of the boxes into my arms, picked up the other one, and started walking in the direction of the parking lot. I stared dumbly after her for a few seconds. My brain seemed to be having trouble keeping up.

 “Better follow her, Jacy,” Fletcher said with a hint of humor in his voice. “Lily waits for no man.”

 “What about you?” I asked.

 “I’ll meet you at my house. I’m parked somewhere else.”

 I nodded and rushed to catch up with my aunt. I was halfway to the parking lot when Skye and I spotted each other at the same time. He took a few steps in my direction, but something in my face must have warned him off. He gave me a small wave, which I couldn’t return for the box in my hands. We maintained eye contact until a group of people surged between us, cutting him off from my view. Something else to figure out, I thought wearily. As if I don’t have enough going on.

 When I arrived at Lily’s car, she already had the trunk open and her box loaded. Without a word, she took my box from me, dropped it in next to the other one, and slammed the truck closed. “Hop in,” she said.

 I mutely did as ordered while she climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car.

 “Jacy, I’m sorry to have sprung this on you all at once,” she said as she drove. “Maybe that wasn’t the best decision, but I didn’t know how else to tell you.”

 “I just don’t understand.”

 “I think we’d better wait and let Fletcher explain.”

 “Why do you call him Fletcher?”

 She paused a moment. “I never really knew him as a father until I was an adult. By that time, I already had a father, the man who’d raised me.”

 “Grandpa Allen,” I supplied.

 “Right. When I became closer to Fletcher, it just felt natural to call him that.”

 “Why didn’t you see him as a child?”

 “Like I said, I think I should let Fletcher explain.”

 We fell into silence and, soon after, Lily pulled into the driveway of what I assumed to be Fletcher’s house. It was set well back from the road, trees liberally dotted the front yard and the forest seemed to crowd right up to the back of the small dwelling.  With its weathered cedar siding and redwood deck, the house itself looked less like it had been built and more like it had simply grown from the soft mossy ground it sat upon. The landscaping could best be described as naturalistic. Sunlight beamed through the canopy above to create small pools of warmth where wildflowers and what looked to me like unattended weeds competed for attention. The total effect was quite enchanting, like something from a fairy tale.

 We climbed out of the car and Lily once again popped open the trunk. We were lifting out the boxes when a huge red Harley Davidson roared into the drive with Fletcher astride it like a conquistador on his horse. My mouth dropped open as I took in the sight. At least now I knew why we’d taken the boxes. Lily grinned at my stunned expression.

 Fletcher pulled the bike up next to Lily’s car and shut it off. He pulled off his helmet to reveal a grin that matched Lily’s watt for watt in intensity. “Not what you expected, eh?” he asked.

 I shook my head “no” since words seemed to have failed me yet again.

 “Let’s go inside. I’ll brew up some tea while we talk.” He started off for the house with Lily and me trailing behind. I was surprised at the agility with which he moved. Both he and Grandma Allen had to be in their seventies, but he moved like a young man while Grandma Allen’s movements were stiff and slow.

 He unlocked the door and led us into the house’s interior. The first thing I noticed was the scent—somewhat spicy yet sweet. Then, as my eyes adjusted to the dimmer light inside, I began to notice the decor. It was southwestern meets the Natural History Museum. The entryway led directly into the living room where an invitingly plump leather sofa and matching chairs provided seating, while pine end tables supported cast iron lamps and beautiful southwestern pottery. Cases on the walls displayed a vast collection of artifacts—everything from arrowheads to tomahawks. A deep bookshelf held more stone tools that I couldn’t begin to identify along with an assortment of skulls and bones that I didn’t care to look at any closer. Behind the oddments, the shelves were stuffed to overflowing with books.

 “I’ll make the tea,” Lily offered. “You two can get started talking. Jacy has a lot of questions.” As she disappeared through a door, I caught a glimpse of a dining room table stacked high with papers.

 “My home office,” Fletcher said, following my gaze. “I don’t have a lot of company. Have a seat.”

 I sank onto the closest chair, marveling at how comfortable it was. It was almost like getting a hug. Fletcher settled onto the end of the couch with a contented smile. “This furniture is my biggest luxury,” he confided. “Well, that and my Harley.”

 “The chair is very comfortable,” I mumbled.

 Fletcher grinned. “Yes, it is, but you’re not here to discuss my furniture.”

 I stared back at him without comment.

 “You’re not going to make this easy, are you?” he asked after a moment.

 “I don’t even know where to start,” I said quite truthfully.

 He sighed. “That makes two of us. I guess the beginning’s as appropriate a place as any.” He paused for a long time, then began to speak in a slightly sing-song tone, “I spent a lot of time with my grandfather when I was a child. He was what you might call a medicine man. He knew the woods better than any survivalist today. He knew every plant, whether it was edible or poisonous and what uses it had. He could tell what animal had passed by its tracks and droppings, identify birds by their calls—it seemed to me that he knew anything you could possibly want to know. I was just a kid at the time and didn’t pay as much attention as I wish I had, but some of it still rubbed off. He also taught me a lot about respecting the land...and yourself. I wish I’d listened closer to his lessons about always being proud of who you are.”

 I wondered where he was going with this rambling story-telling style, but I didn’t interrupt.

 “When I was a young man, I met and married Vida, your grandmother.”

 “Grandma Allen?” I asked.

 He nodded. “We had five beautiful daughters, but I still wasn’t happy. I started looking into the Old Ways that my grandfather had tried to teach me and began to find myself there. It quickly became obvious to both Vida and me what we had to do. The divorce was quite amicable. There were never any hard feelings between us. I was thrilled for her when she met Bob Allen and they got married.

"It was the girls that had a hard time with it. We felt we couldn’t tell them the whole story at the time, and they just couldn’t understand. They felt very abandoned, especially Rose, your mother. She’d always been a daddy’s girl, and my leaving hit her especially hard. Later, when the whole story came out, it just further fueled her hatred for me. I’m pretty sure that’s why she chose not to tell you of my existence.” He sat watching my face, seemingly waiting for a response.

 I thought for a moment. It was obvious that he was leaving out a large part of the story. Was I supposed to question him or just accept it? Was this some sort of test? I made up my mind. “What aren’t you telling me?” I asked just as Lily came back into the room bearing a small silver tray laden with steaming tea cups and a sugar pot. She sat the tray on the coffee table and handed Fletcher and me our cups.

 Fletcher sniffed his appreciatively. “Clover catnip?”

 Lily nodded as she sat down next to him on the couch.

 “Good choice,” he said approvingly. Then to me, “Clover catnip tea has very cleansing, soothing qualities.”

 “You’re avoiding my question,” I said somewhat impatiently. I sat the cup down on the table next to me, untouched.

 Fletcher and Lily exchanged another glance laden with subtext. Lily gave an almost imperceptible nod, and Fletcher turned back to me.

 “Jacy, the reason your grandmother and I separated, and part of the reason why your mother tries so hard to pretend I don’t exist, is because I am two-spirited.”

 I stared at him blankly. “What does that mean?”

 He frowned as if he’d expected me to understand. “I see you truly do have a lot to learn.” There was no blame in his voice, but I couldn’t help bristling. He quickly noticed. “That’s not your fault, Jacy. You can’t know what you weren’t taught. This will be a simplified explanation, but our ancestors believed that most people are born with either a male spirit or a female spirit. However, some are born with two spirits, both male and female. These people were held in a very high regard because they were seen as being closer to the Creator. They often held positions of authority and respect within their communities—healers, mediators, shamans. They often had spiritual powers that set them apart.”

 My brain was racing to keep up. “Wait,” I blurted out. “Do you mean you’re gay?”

 He blinked for a second, startled out of his recital. “Well, I guess some people might say that I am. Being a two-spirit is much more than just being gay or bisexual though. Not every gay person is two-spirited, but all two-spirited people are bisexual or gay.”

 “You’re gay?” I repeated, just to make sure I understood him. He nodded. No wonder Mom wouldn’t acknowledge him. Not only did he leave them when she was young, but he was gay. That would not go over well with Mom’s religious beliefs. But according to Fletcher, our ancestors had not only accepted homosexuality, but respected it.

 Suddenly, my brain caught up with me. My grandfather was gay. As that thought struck me, all other thoughts fled. My grandfather was gay—the grandfather I hadn’t even known existed until less than an hour before.

 My thoughts careened to Skye and the kiss he’d given me. Was being gay hereditary? I quickly skittered away from that idea. I wasn’t prepared to deal with it just yet—one thing at a time. “You’re gay,” I said again.

 “Just to get it all out at once, so am I,” Lily added with an amused expression on her face. “But much to Fletcher’s disappointment, I’m not a two-spirit, just your regular old garden variety lesbian.”

 My brain was on overload. “Does Mom know?”

 “It’s never come up in conversation,” she said drolly.

 We were all quiet for a few seconds. “Explain the difference to me again,” I asked after a minute.

 Fletcher beamed like I’d just passed some sort of test. “As I said, not all gay and lesbian people are two-spirited. The difference is that two-spirited people are given certain other...let’s call them gifts for lack of a better word. These gifts bring with them a certain level of responsibility. In most Native cultures, people who were two-spirits had very specific roles.”

 “It wasn’t just in our culture? It was also in other cultures?”

 “Oh yes! Almost all tribes were aware of the existence of two-spirit people, and most still have a name for them. The Navaho called them nàdleehé—one who is ‘transformed’. The Lakota Sioux called them winkte, the Mohave alyha, the Zuni lhamana, the Omaha mexoga, the Aleut and Kodiak achnucek, the Zapotec ira’ muxe, the Cheyenne he man eh, just to name a few. They all believed that two-spirit people were born that way, and they not only saw them as normal, but as a necessary part of society. They almost always became spiritual leaders in their villages.”

 “You keep using the past tense. Does that mean it’s not like that anymore?”

 Fletcher’s face grew sad. “Sadly, no. As in many other things, we’ve been too influenced by Judeo-Christian beliefs. There is some resurgence recently of the two-spirit tradition, but it is something of an uphill battle at this point.”

 “So our tribe doesn’t accept it?”

 Lily laughed. “Fletcher hasn’t given them a choice. He’s been so active in tribal life since he came out that everyone has pretty much accepted it. Even the most conservative elders pretty much just ignore it. After all, no one can deny how influential Fletcher is in tribal matters. He’s our unofficial medicine man.” Fletcher opened his mouth to argue, but Lily cut him off. “I know you hate the term, Fletcher, but you know it’s true. You mediate conflicts, you help keep the Old Ways and traditions alive, you teach the young ones—heck, you even heal with your herbal remedies.”

 “I prefer the term Native Herbalist,” he said with dignity. Lily just grinned at him. Their little exchange allowed some of what I’d just learned to sink in and I discovered I had a lot more questions.

 “So are you saying that you have magical powers?” I asked suddenly. They both turned to look at me with surprised expressions.

 “Excuse me?” Fletcher asked.

 “You said earlier that two-spirit people had magical powers.”

 “No, I said they had spiritual powers.”

 “What’s the difference?”

 “There’s a huge difference. Magical powers imply that I cast spells and keep a pointy hat in my closet. I’m not Professor Dumbledore. The spiritual powers can come in many different forms. For some, it’s just a heightened perception that allows them to see more clearly. Some are dreamers. Some are healers. Some are seers. Some are all or a combination of these and other gifts.”

 “What are you?”

 “A little of each.”

 “So...you can see the future?”

 He smiled. “It’s not like gazing into a crystal ball. I get glimpses of what is to come, sometimes clearer than others. I see what the Creator wants me to see.”

 Lily was studying me closely. We made eye contact, and I knew without a doubt that she was thinking about my vision of Skye getting hit by that car. I shook my head “no”, but she just lifted an eyebrow. I knew what she was trying to imply, and I was having none of it.

 “Look, this is a lot to take in. I didn’t even know I had a grandfather before today, and then I not only find out that you exist, but also that you’re gay and some sort of...psychic. I think I need to go home and think about all this for a while.”

 Fletcher nodded. “I can understand that. It was a lot to dump in your lap all at once. I’m here if you have any questions. Lily, could you get him one of my cards, please?”

 Lily left the room through the door into the home office/dining room again, returning less than a minute later with a cream colored business card, which she handed to me. In large letters across the top it read “Fletcher Snyder – Native Herbalist”. Under that was his address, phone number, and, to my surprise, his email address and website.

 “You have a website?” I asked.

 “That’s how I make most of my sales,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I may practice the Old Ways in some things, but I’m very much a part of the 21st Century as well.”

 “Are you ready to go?” Lily asked. “I’ll give you a ride back to your car.”

 I nodded and stood up, slipping the card into my pocket. “It’s been...interesting,” I said with a half-smile, which was as much as I could muster.

 “Don’t be afraid to contact me with your questions,” Fletcher said.

 I nodded and followed Lily out to the car. Neither of us spoke for a while, but finally she cleared her throat.

 “You know you can talk to me any time too, Jacy,” she said gently, “...about anything.” There was a slight emphasis on the word anything, but I chose to ignore it.

 I nodded.

 “I’m serious, Jacy. Don’t just close yourself off to Fletcher and me. You need to talk about all this with someone.”

 “I’m not really ready to talk yet,” I said.

 “I guess I can understand that.” She paused. “Are you okay with the fact that I’m gay?”

 I glanced over at her and shrugged. “I haven’t really had time to think about it, but I guess that doesn’t really matter to me. I’m not as hung up on church and stuff as Mom is. It’s a little weird though. I’ve never known anyone who is gay, and then I meet two in one day.”

 “Three,” she corrected absently.

 “Three?”

 “Skye,” she said, and I felt myself blush. I quickly turned to look out the window.

 “You can talk about that with me too, if you want,” Lily offered tentatively.

 “There’s nothing to talk about,” I said quickly with what I hoped was a note of finality.

 We fell into silence as we drew closer to the powwow grounds. I could see campers and tents among the trees through my side window. I assumed that was where the powwow participants from out of town stayed. It looked like a traveling gypsy camp with clothes hanging outside, barbecue grills wafting smoke like ancient campfires, and children running and playing among the temporary dwellings. It might have looked something like this a thousand years ago, I thought, without the modern accoutrements, of course.

 Suddenly, something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. I looked forward in time to see a small child dart into the road in front of our car. I only had time to gasp and throw my hands out toward the windshield. I blinked and the child was gone.

 “Stop,” I gasped with an intensity that startled even me.

 “What?” Lily asked with confusion.

 “Stop the car.” Panic was squeezing my chest so tightly I could barely breathe. “Now!”

 Lily slammed on the brakes and the car screeched to a shuddering halt just as a little girl no older than two toddled into the road, giggling, blissfully oblivious to how close she had come to death. A young woman, probably the child’s mother, rushed out after the girl, scooping her up and waving apologetically to us, only marginally more aware of how close she had come to losing her child.

 Lily sat unmoving, staring out at the road and sucking in short, shallow gasps of air. A car pulled up behind us and honked its horn, but still Lily didn’t move. The car finally pulled carefully around us, the driver staring over angrily at us as he passed.

 “Lily?” I asked after few minutes. “Aunt Lily?”

 She turned slowly to face me, her dark eyes unreadable. “Jacy, we have to talk.”

* * *

 Once again, I begged out of the big discussion by saying I needed to think about things for a while. Lily agreed, but very reluctantly.

 “You can’t put this off forever, Jacy,” she warned. “Your gifts are going to keep manifesting themselves, and it’s going to get harder and harder to deal with it if you don’t understand them. Fletcher can help if you’ll let him.”

 I simply climbed out of the car and waved goodbye. I avoided thinking about the whole messy subject for the rest of the night. It helped that I had some distraction in the form of Michael. He showed up at my bedroom door later that night with a hesitant knock.

 “Come in,” I called from my place in front of my latest canvas. I’d been painting since I got home, my thoughts carefully focused on pigments and brushstrokes. The painting was more abstract than usual, really just a splash of colors.

 Michael slid into the room. “So,” he said expectantly.

 I looked up from the painting. “So?”

 “You said you wanted to talk to me tonight.”

 It took a few seconds to remember the incident from earlier that day. It seemed like a millennium had passed since then. It somehow seemed much less important now.

 “Oh, that.”

 Michael raised an eyebrow. “I’ve been waiting for my lecture all night, and now all I get is an ‘oh that’? You were pretty pissed this afternoon.”

 I shrugged. “A lot’s happened since then,” I said simply. Then, as an afterthought, added, “But stay out of my car.”

 He stood there for a few beats while I started painting again. “So that’s it?” he asked after a while.

 “Yep,” I replied.

 “You’re not going to tell Mom and Dad?”

 “Nope.”

 He stood there a minute longer. “Hey Jay, is everything okay?” he asked suddenly.

 I stopped painting and looked up at him. He almost never called me Jay anymore. It was his nickname for me when we were kids. “Why?” I asked guardedly.

 “You said a lot happened today, and you’re definitely not yourself. Do you want to talk about it?”

 “Not really.”

 “Okay. Well, uh, if you change your mind, you know where I am,” he said awkwardly. He shuffled his feet, then turned to leave.

 “Hey Mikey,” I called. He stopped and faced me. “Thanks, but I’m just not ready to talk. Okay?”

 He nodded. “Yeah. It’s cool. And I’ll stay out of your car, I promise.”

 I gave him a weak smile and watched as he slipped out of the room, shutting the door behind himself with a soft click. I turned back to the canvas, but found I was no longer in the mood to paint. I cleaned my brushes, visited the bathroom for my evening ablutions, and then pulled my clothes off before collapsing into bed. I must have been more emotionally exhausted than I’d suspected because I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.

 It wasn’t until the next morning when I went to church and sat in the pew listening to the pastor’s sermon about the growing threat of homosexuality that everything suddenly swirled back into the forefront of my thoughts. While the pastor stood at the front of the sanctuary intoning the evils of being gay and how the homosexuals were trying to destroy our society, I was thinking about the fact that just the day before I’d learned that my grandfather was gay, and so was my aunt—not to mention Skye. And what about me? I couldn't deny that I was attracted to Skye. Part of me liked his kiss. Did that make me gay?

 Suddenly, I remembered something Fletcher had said, “Not every gay person is two-spirited, but all two-spirited people are bisexual or gay.” I knew Lily was convinced I was two-spirited, and there was no way I could deny the two visions I’d had. In both instances, I’d seen something happen before it actually happened. I’d been able to avert two potential tragedies. Could it be possible that I was a two-spirit?

 If so, according to Fletcher, I had to be at least bisexual. That would explain my attraction to both girls and Skye. Several things clicked into place at once as a sense of certainty settled over me—and with it a sense of peace like I’d never known. I was gay and I was two-spirited. It was easier to accept than I had thought. It all just made sense and felt...right, somehow.

 Just then, the preacher’s words penetrated my thoughts. “Homosexuality is an abomination before the Lord!” he was shouting, his voice quivering with righteous indignation. “And yet, Hollywood is parading that lifestyle before us as if it was completely normal. Every week, they force their filth into our homes on television and in movies. It’s time we stood up and made a stand against the immorality before our children are seduced by their lies.”

 My stomach lurched at the vitriol in his words. Not for the first time, I wondered why some people feel so compelled to force their beliefs on others and how anyone could be so threatened by love in any form. I was tired of the hypocrisy. How could someone who professed to worship a god of love be so full of hate? The longer I sat there the sicker I felt. I had to get out. I would stand up, alright, but not in the way the pastor expected.

 I stood and began making my way past my family towards the aisle. I’d sat in the center of the pew, so it was quite a production with my brothers and sisters looking startled and my mother glaring daggers at me. I finally made it to the aisle and walked out the back door of the sanctuary and out of the church. I knew I’d be in a lot of trouble later, but at that moment, I just didn’t care. I had to get out of there.

 I took several deep breaths of fresh air and waited for my stomach to settle. As usual, we’d all driven in one vehicle so I was stuck until church let out. Either that or I could start walking. I opted for walking. I set off down the road without a clear destination in mind. It was too far to walk home, but it didn’t matter. More than anything, I just needed to be moving.

 I don’t know how long I walked aimlessly down the street before an unfamiliar car pulled over onto the shoulder in front of me. I stopped and stared warily at the black Jetta. The door opened and out stepped Skye. I couldn’t help laughing. Apparently God had more of a sense of humor than most of his followers credited him with.

 A confused look passed over Skye’s attractive features. “What’s so funny?”

 “Never mind,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

 “I was on my way to a friend’s house when I thought I saw you walking on the side of the road. So I turned around to see if it was you, and if you needed a ride or something.”

 I smiled at him. “That would be great. Thanks.”

 “No problem,” he said and gestured towards the car. I went around to the passenger side and climbed in. Dance music thumped from the speakers as Skye slid behind the wheel.

 “So where were you headed?” he asked after he’d turned down the volume a bit on the stereo.

 “I don’t know. I was just walking—nowhere in particular.”

 “You always go for walks dressed like that?”

 I looked down at my navy dress pants and button-up light blue oxford shirt and laughed again. “I walked out of church.”

 He gave me a curious look.

 “It’s a long story,” I said with a grin. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been this happy. I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

 “You seem really happy about something,” he said with a smile of his own.

 “I am.”

 “Want to talk about it?”

 I couldn’t help but giggle. Everyone seemed to be asking me that these days. “Not really.”

 He rolled his eyes. “You’re a riddle wrapped in mystery, Jacy,” he said in an amused tone.

 “You don’t know the half of it,” I said happily.

 “I’d like to."

 I glanced over at him with a nervous flutter in my stomach.

 “So where am I taking you?” he asked after a few moments of silence.

 “I don’t know. Would you want to...hang out or something? Oh wait, you were on your way to your friend’s, weren’t you?”

 “That’s not a big deal. We didn’t have any real plans. I can just call her and tell her something’s come up.”

 “You don’t have to do that,” I protested half-heartedly.

 “I know I don’t have to. I want to.” He picked up his cell phone and said, “Ebony.” He waited a few minutes until Ebony answered. “Hey girl, look, plans have changed. I’m not coming over now, but I’ll call you later, okay?” He listened for a second then glanced over at me. “I picked up a hitchhiker and now we’re going to the zoo.” He laughed at her response. “Later, gator,” he said teasingly and disconnected the call. Immediately, it began to ring with the familiar strains of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. He ignored the phone.

 “The zoo, huh?” I asked. I assumed he was talking about the Salisbury Zoo. It was a small zoo here on the Eastern Shore that had won awards as one of the best small zoos in the country. It was only about half an hour from us. I hadn’t been there in years.

 “Do you mind?”

 “That’s fine,” I said with a smile.

 We drove in silence, but he kept sneaking little looks in my direction. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. “What?”

 “What?” he echoed.

 “Why do you keep looking at me?”

 He laughed. “You mean besides the fact that you’re really cute?”

 I felt myself blush. “I am not."

 “You so totally are,” he chuckled. “But the main reason I keep looking at you is because you seem really different today. When I last saw you yesterday, you looked like you had just seen a ghost. Now, it’s like you can’t stop smiling.”

 “I feel different. I am different. A lot has changed since we talked yesterday.”

 “How can things change so much in one day?”

 I shrugged. “It’s all in how you look at things. I know things now that I didn’t know yesterday. I’ve accepted things that I was still fighting yesterday.”

 “Like what?” When I hesitated, he said, “I don’t mean to be nosy, but you keep making these cryptic comments. I can’t help but be curious.”

 I conceded his point with a nod. “I found out yesterday that I had a grandfather I never knew about,” I told him. It wasn’t the whole story, but I hoped it would be enough to sate his curiosity.

 “Wow,” he breathed. “That’s pretty intense. How come you didn’t know about him?”

 “My mom never told me about him.”

 “So how did you find out?”

 “My aunt introduced us.”

 “Lily?”

 “Yeah.”

 He thought a moment and put two and two together. “Fletcher Snyder is your grandfather?”

 “Apparently.”

 “Wow. Well, he’s a really cool guy. If you’re going to get an instant grandfather, you could have done worse.”

 He pulled into the parking lot of the zoo, and slid into a space. We got out and started walking through the zoo at a leisurely pace, stopping at the various enclosures to watch the animals. We lingered for a while over the otters and monkeys, enjoying their playfulness, and admired the sleek black jaguar.

 I felt myself relaxing more and more in Skye’s company. His occasional casual touch electrified me, and I found myself wishing he would kiss me again. After we’d made our way through the zoo, he suggested we walk along the park trail. I quickly agreed—anything to extend my time with him and delay going home.

 We passed by the playground, leaving the sounds of children laughing and playing behind us. We came to a small bridge over a tributary of the river and stopped at its center. I leaned over the rail and watched the fish darting around just below the water’s surface. I felt Skye slide his arms around my waist as his chin fit into my shoulder. Instinctively, I tensed and quickly looked around, but there were no other people in sight. I consciously relaxed into his embrace.

 “Something else has changed about you since yesterday,” he said softly.

 “What’s that?” I answered, matching his intimate tone.

 “You would have freaked out if I did this yesterday.”

 I gently twisted around so that I was facing him, his arms still around me. “That was yesterday.”

 “What changed?” he asked as his lips drew closer to mine.

 “Everything,” I answered as I leaned in to complete the kiss.

* * *

 All good things must come to an end, and my idyllic afternoon with Skye was no exception. I knew I had to go home and face Mom eventually, and I’d put it off long enough.

 “I guess you should take me home,” I said to Skye as he pushed me on one of the swings at the far end of the park. After our kiss on the bridge, we spent the next hour getting to know each other. We walked while we told each other our life stories, and eventually we ended up at the swings. “I wish this afternoon didn’t have to end,” I added with a sigh.

 “We’ll see each other again,” Skye said. With a final push, he walked around to stand in front of the swing. “At least, I’d like to see you again, and I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to see me again.” He flashed that cocky grin that I found so endearing and held out his arms.

 I grinned back and jumped from the swing into his arms. “You know I want to see you again,” I said, suddenly serious. “I’ll probably be grounded until I’m eighteen after today, though.”

 He frowned. “Just for walking out of church? Just say you felt sick or something.”

 “Then she’ll want to know why I didn’t wait for them and where I’ve been all afternoon.”

 “What’re you going to tell her?”

 I shrugged. “I don’t know yet. The truth maybe?”

 “Really?” He sounded surprised. “And what would that be?” he asked, pulling away so he could see my face.

 “That I was with my boyfriend,” I said with a smile.

 He didn’t return my smile, instead pulling further away from me and dropping his arms from around my waist. “Jacy...”

 “I was just kidding,” I said quickly.

 “Jacy, I think you’re really sweet and all, and I like being with you, but I’m not really looking for a boyfriend. I’m young. I want to enjoy life before I settle down with someone.”

 “I didn’t ask you to marry me.” If my tone was a little sharper than I’d intended, it was because his words had stung. He wasn’t looking for a boyfriend? So that meant I was just a plaything to him?

 “Look, I’m sorry if you got the wrong impression. Don’t get all bent out of shape. We had a good time, right?”

 I had to admit we had. I gave him a begrudged nod.

 “And maybe we’ll have a good time together again. I really would like that. We just won’t be boyfriends, you know?”

 His attitude was starting to grate on my nerves. “So what would we be, Skye? Acquaintances? Friends? Fuck buddies?”

 He blinked in surprise and shrugged uncomfortably. “Why do we have to be anything? Who needs labels?”

 I walked away from Skye towards the river, thinking feverishly. This isn’t at all how I imagined it. Is this what gay life is like? Is this what my pastor was talking about when he referred to the gay lifestyle? No commitment? No real relationships? Maybe I was just a stupid romantic, but I wanted more than that. I wanted a boyfriend.

 With that thought, I abruptly stopped walking. Did I really just think that? Was that what I wanted? A boyfriend? I knew it was. That knowledge hit me like a bolt out of the blue. I thought I had already accepted the fact that I was gay, or at least bisexual, but realizing how badly I wanted a boyfriend brought it all into sharp focus.

 I turned back to Skye, who was watching me warily from the exact spot where I’d left him. “Can you take me home now?” I asked.

 He nodded. We walked back through the park and the zoo to where we’d left his car, but the easy camaraderie from earlier was gone. We walked silently and with a distance between us that was more than just physical. Once in the car, I gave Skye directions to my house. After a few minutes of driving, he made an effort to explain himself.

 “I’m really sorry if you feel like I led you on or something. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

 “You didn’t lead me on,” I said softly. “I led myself on. You never promised me anything. I was even warned to be careful around you, but I didn’t listen.”

 He frowned at that. “Who warned you about me? And what did they say?”

 I waved his questions away. “That doesn’t matter. The point is, that you’re entitled to want what you want, but so am I—and I want more than what you’re offering. I want a boyfriend. I want commitment and romance. I want to say I love you and hear it said back. I want to know that the guy I’m with cares about me as much as I care about him.”

 “You want guarantees, and there just aren’t any in life.”

 “No, I don’t want a guarantee. I just want a relationship that I can trust. Something like what you were proposing just wouldn’t be satisfying for me.”

 “So what are you trying to say? That I’m a slut?”

 “What? No! I wasn’t saying that at all. If that’s what works for you, then great, I’m happy for you. I just don’t think that it would work for me. We want different things. That’s all I’m trying to say.”

 We fell into a heavy silence, and I thought about the words that had been tumbling out of me. How long had these thoughts been germinating in my mind, waiting to unfold like one of those time-lapse nature documentaries? I hadn’t even realized on a conscious level that I wanted those things before now. Or maybe I had, but I’d always thought of it terms of getting married to a woman someday.

 I found myself with mixed emotions as we pulled into the dirt lane that led back to my house. Part of me was relieved this tension-filled ride was over, but a much bigger part of me dreaded the confrontation with my mother. The car stopped and I climbed out, turning back briefly to say, “Thanks.” He gave a curt nod, and I shut the door and watched him drive away.

 The back door flew open, and Michael spilled out, staring after Skye’s car, already hidden by a cloud of dust.

 “Dude, you are in so much trouble,” he said, confirming my worst suspicions. “Where have you been?”

 “I just needed to get away,” I said simply. I started towards the house, figuring I might as well get this over with right away instead of putting it off any longer.

 “Who was that?” he asked.

 “A friend.”

 I walked past my little brother, ruffling his hair as I went. “It was nice knowing you,” I said as I opened the door.

 “Who was it, Michael?” Mom called from the living room.

 “It’s me, Mom,” I called back.

 “Jacy!” Her voice was so harsh that I flinched. She rounded the corner into the kitchen with her jaw set and her eyes flashing. “Where have you been?” she demanded. “What were you thinking, just up and walking out of church! Do you have any idea how embarrassing that was for me and the family? I had to lie to the pastor and tell him you weren’t feeling well.”

 “I never asked you to lie to anyone, and besides, it wasn’t a lie. I was feeling sick to my stomach and I had to get out of there.”

 “Don’t get smart with me. Why didn’t you wait outside, and where on earth have you been?”

 “I went for a walk, and a friend drove by and offered me a ride so we went to the zoo for a while.”

 “I can’t believe you would do that without telling me. Do you have any idea how irresponsible that was?” I noticed Ariel, Gabriel, Raphael and Dina crowding around the door, all the better to hear me getting in trouble. I was sure Michael was still at the back door listening as well. It was a rare enough event that I could understand their interest. “We didn’t know whether to wait for you or come home. We had no idea where you were. Who was this friend, anyway?”

 “I’m sorry if you were worried,” I said, doubting very seriously that she’d been all that worried. It was much more likely that she was just pissed. “My friend’s name is Skye.”

 Her eyes narrowed. “Skye Morgan?” she asked.

 I blinked in surprise. I hadn’t expected her to know who he was. “Yeah.”

 “How do you know him? He doesn’t even go to your school.”

 I quickly tried to think of a plausible lie. I couldn’t very well tell her that I’d met him at the powwow while I was there with Aunt Lily to meet the grandfather she’d never told me about. At the thought of Fletcher, I began to get angry all over again, but I tried to suppress my resentment. Then I remembered the first time I’d seen Skye at Dairy Queen. “He came into Dairy Queen with someone I know from school,” I said.

 She eyed me suspiciously. I could tell she suspected there was more to the story. “How long have you been friends with him?”

 “Not long,” I said. “I don’t really know him that well.”

 “Did you know he’s a homosexual?”

 My mouth dropped open in shock. How did she know that? True, Skye didn’t exactly hide the fact, but I didn’t even know my mother knew who he was, let alone that he was gay. “How did you know that?” I gasped before I could stop myself.

 Her face grew red. “So you did know. I can’t believe you would associate yourself with one of them.” She said “them” as if she was referring to a pile of animal dung in which she’d just stepped. I felt my own face growing red with stifled emotions. “Weren’t you listening to the pastor this morning?” She stopped as she put two and two together. “Is that why you walked out?”

 Her expression was so horrified that I almost laughed, except there was nothing funny about this situation. I had to make a choice, and I had to make it quickly. Would I back down and insist that I’d walked out simply because I was feeling sick, or would I take a stand and admit that it was the pastor’s words that had made me sick?

 While I was trying to decide what to do, Mom’s expression became even more revolted—if that was possible—as a new thought occurred to her. “Oh God, Jacy! Please tell me you’re not involved with that...that...pervert.”

 Suddenly, the events of the last few days boiled over and I lost it. “And what if I was?” I said in a deceptively calm voice. “Would you just write me out of your life and pretend I didn’t exist? It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve done that, would it?”

 She froze. “What are you talking about?” She searched my face in an attempt to read what I knew.

 “I know everything,” I told her, challenging her with my stare.

 “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she bluffed, but her eyes gave her away.

 “Remember that school project you wouldn’t help me with?”

 She shook her head, not to say that she didn’t remember it, but that she didn’t understand.

 “When you wouldn’t help me, I went to Grandma Allen, but she wouldn’t help me either. So then I went to Aunt Lily.”

 Mom’s eyes grew wide. “She...she told you?”

 “Not at first. She wanted to be sure I was ready to know. Yesterday, she introduced me to my grandfather. You know the one. The one you’ve lied to us about all these years, the one I didn’t even know existed.”

 “That man is not your grandfather,” she spat. “He lost the right to be called your grandfather the day he walked out on us. Lily had no right to tell you about any of this.” She was practically shaking with rage at this point. I took a step backwards just to be out of her reach. She’d never hit one of us kids before, but then, I’d never seen her this angry either. “How dare she!”

 “Don’t be angry at Lily. She just told me the truth.”

 “That was my decision to make, not hers. You’re my son. It was better you didn’t know about that worthless excuse for a human being. What has she been telling you? She’s probably filled your head full of lies, making him seem so noble and romantic.”

 “You’re the one who’s been filling my head full of lies,” I interrupted heatedly. “You lied about Grandpa Allen being my real grandfather.”

 “I was trying to protect you.”

 “From what? My true heritage?”

 “Heritage? I can tell you’ve been talking to Lily and him.” She couldn’t even bring herself to say his name. “What exactly is your heritage, Jacy? A bunch of heathen savages? If they want to run around worshiping pagan gods, fine let them, but that’s the past, not today. You’re better than that. We know the truth today.”

 “You wouldn’t know the truth if it bit you on the ass.” I’d crossed the line and I knew it as soon as the words left my mouth.

 “That’s it,” she snapped, biting off each word. “You’re grounded for six months. You’re not to see Skye Morgan anymore. You’re not to see Lily again. And you’re certainly never going to see him again.”

 “They’re my family. You can’t stop me from seeing them.”

 “Oh yes I can.”

 “I’ll go when I’m supposed to be at work.”

 “Then you’ve worked your last day. You can quit your job tomorrow.”

 “You can’t control every second of my life.”

 “That’s where you’re wrong. As long as you live under my roof, you’ll obey my rules.”

 “Fine, then maybe I won’t live under your roof anymore.”

 “And where do you think you’ll go?”

 “I can live with Aunt Lily or Fletcher.”

 She flinched at the mention of his name. “Maybe that’s the best place for you,” she sneered, “with other queers.” My breath caught in my throat. I guess that answered the question of whether or not she knew Lily was a lesbian.

 “You know,” I said quietly, “for years I’ve felt so guilty about being attracted to guys that I blocked it out of my head completely. It wasn’t that hard really since I was still interested in girls, and I wasn’t even all that interested in either gender. This weekend, though, it was like having a veil lifted from my eyes, and for the first time in my life I saw things clearly. I had an epiphany as I sat there in church this morning listening to the pastor preach hatred. It felt so wrong that it made me sick to my stomach. I couldn’t sit there and listen to it anymore. I had to get out. It’s funny how you can’t bear the lie once you’ve been introduced to the truth. Kind of like how I can barely stand to look at you now that I know you lied to me for so long.

 “Oh, and just so you know, I wasn’t involved with Skye. I was telling the truth when I said that I barely knew him. I had a great time with him today. I felt freer than I think I’ve ever felt before, but I don’t know him well enough to even call him a friend. But I did kiss him today, and you know what? I’m not sorry.”

 The look of disgust on her face spoke volumes. “Get out,” she commanded in a strangled voice. “Get out and don’t come back. You don’t have a home here anymore.”

 I shrugged. “I don’t think I ever had a home here.” I turned and started towards the door.

 I was half-way to the door when she called out, “The car belongs to your father and me. Wherever you’re going, you’re going there on foot.”

 I paused for second, then continued without looking back.

 I stepped outside to find a wide-eyed Michael waiting to pounce on me.

 “Are you really leaving?” he asked me.

 I nodded while I kept walking. He trotted along side me.

 “I can’t believe you’re leaving.” He sounded a little upset. “Do we really have a grandfather that Mom never told us about?”

 “Yes,” I said.

 “Are you really gay?”

 I stopped abruptly and looked squarely at Michael. “Listen Michael, this has been a really craptastic day so if you’re just going to add more crap to the pile, I really don’t need it. Okay?”

 “I wasn’t going to add to it,” he said with a slight pout. “I don’t care if you’re gay. Is this what you wouldn’t talk to me about last night?”

 “Partly,” I admitted.

 He frowned suddenly. “It’s not right that Mom threw you out,” he said, sounding angry. “Whether or not she likes it that you’re gay, you’re still family.”

 I gave him a small smile. “Thanks, Mikey. It’s nice to know someone feels that way.”

 “I don’t want you to go, Jay.”

 I shrugged. “I don’t have much choice. I can’t stay here, not with her.”

 “Where are you going to go? Are you really going to live with Aunt Lily? Who was the other person you mentioned?”

 “Fletcher is our grandfather, and I don’t know where I’m going.”

 “How come we never knew about him if he’s our grandfather? Why didn’t Mom want us to know about him?”

 I sighed. “You’ll have to ask Mom.”

 The back door opened, and Mom yelled out, “Michael, get inside now!” The door slammed shut again.

 “Why can’t you tell me?” he asked petulantly. 

 “It’s a long story, and we don’t have time,” I said. “Besides, it’s not really my place to tell you.”

 “She’ll never tell me. You know that.”

 “Then ask Aunt Violet. Or wait until you’re old enough to drive and ask Aunt Lily. For that matter, just ask your grandfather himself. In fact...wait...” I dug out the card Fletcher had given me and handed it to Michael. "You need this more than me right now. That's him. When you're ready, call him

 He stared at me few seconds, then gave me a crooked smile. “I’m still gonna see you,” he said. “It’s not like this is goodbye forever. I’ll sneak around if I have to. Aunt Violet will bring me to see you.”

 I smiled back at him. He’d be okay, I was sure of that. Michael was a fighter. I ruffled his hair one more time and said, “You’d better get back inside before Mom flips and grounds you too.”

 I started backing away as he turned and started walking back towards the house, his head down, shoulders slumped. He looked like he was walking to his execution. Despite his encouraging words, I knew he was upset. I turned and started for the road but suddenly stopped and spun around.

 “Michael!” I called.

 He stopped and turned back. I glanced up at the house and motioned him closer. He loped across the ground between us until he was back at my side.

 “Use condoms,” I told him.

 His eyes flew open wide. “What?”

 “If you’re going to keep screwing around with girls, use condoms or you’ll either be a daddy by the time you’re sixteen, you’ll catch some nasty STD, or—even worse—get AIDS. I’m not ready to be an uncle, and I’m sure not ready to attend my little brother’s funeral.”

 He gulped. “Where do I get condoms?”

 “The school nurse can give them to you. Just don’t let Mom find them or you’ll be living with me.” He nodded. “Don’t ever mess up,” I stressed. “Now go, before Mom comes back out.”

 He turned away again, but I couldn’t let him go just yet. “Mikey?” He stopped and turned around. “Take care of yourself, okay? And watch out for the others. You’ll be the big brother now.”

 “Jeez, Jacy! It’s not like you’re dying. You’re just moving to a different house. You would’ve gone to college next year anyway. I’ll still see you.”

 I nodded and grinned. He was right. I was being melodramatic. “Yeah. Just...if you ever need anything, you come to me, okay?”

 He nodded seriously. He was about to say something else when the back door opened again. “Michael, if you’re not inside in thirty seconds, you’re grounded for a month,” Mom screamed.

 “Told you,” I said with a forced smile.

 “You’d better get going anyway,” he said sadly. “It looks like it could rain any second.” I glanced up at the sky to see that it had indeed darkened forebodingly.

 I gave him a little wave, which he returned, then we turned and walked away from each other—Michael back to the house I’d grown up in, where my old life had been; me towards something new and exciting and scary. I didn’t know what my future held, but I knew I wouldn’t find it here.

* * *

 Michael was right. I’d barely made it to the end of the dirt drive before it started to sprinkle. By the time I was a half-mile down the road, the skies unloaded a torrential downpour. I was soaked to the bone in no time. When I finally reached the little combination gas station and general store that stood about a mile and a half from our house, I was so cold my teeth were chattering.

 I fished in my pockets for change, but I didn’t have any. I would have to call collect. I picked up the phone, but there was no dial tone. What next? I asked myself wearily. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. When I pulled on the door, I found it locked. I’d forgotten the small store wasn’t open on Sundays. I slumped against the wall and fought back tears. We were five miles from the closest town, and this was the only store between here and there. There was no way I was going to knock on someone’s door looking like this. One look at me and they’d be more inclined to call the police than help me.

 I was just about to give up and start walking again—five miles isn’t that bad, I tried telling myself—when my parents’ van pulled into the parking lot. I was immediately on guard, but as the window descended it was my dad’s face peering out at me, a concerned expression on his usually impassive face. I was surprised to say the least. Dad was a constant presence in the house, but not a very influential one. He was just sort of there. He could usually be found in the family room, parked in front of the television, newspaper optional. He seemed content to let Mom run the house and make all the important decisions. I often wondered if he had always been that way or if Mom had just worn him down until he stopped caring.

 “Get in,” he said.

 “I’m not going back,” I said defiantly.

 “I’m not taking you back. She’d never let you in the door. I’ll take you wherever you want to go. I’m not going to let you walk in this rain.”

 It only took me a few seconds to weigh my options. My choices were walk five miles in the rain or get a ride. No contest. I climbed into the front seat, dripping water everywhere. “I’m going to get the seat wet,” I said.

 “It’ll dry. Michael packed you some clothes. They’re in the back with your school books.”

 “Thanks.”

 “Where to?”

 “I guess Aunt Lily’s house,” I told him, avoiding eye contact.

 He noticed me shivering and turned the heat up, aiming the vents directly at me. We drove in awkward silence for several minutes before Dad cleared his throat. “She was only doing what she thought was best for you.”

 “Please Dad, don’t make excuses for her. She lied to us. I’m sure she had her reasons in her own mind, but I don’t want to hear them. If Grandma Allen could forgive him and be his friend then Mom should too. She’s the one who’s always going on about God’s forgiveness. She’s such a hypocrite.”

 “Jacy, she’s your mother. You shouldn’t talk about her like that.”

 I looked over at him. “She threw me out.”

 He didn’t have anything to say to that. A few minutes later he tried again, “You know we can’t condone a gay lifestyle.”

 “You know what? I think I’d rather just walk.”

 “Jacy...”

 “I didn’t ask you to condone anything, Dad. I don’t even know what the gay lifestyle is, so how can I ask you to condone it? All I know is that there are a lot of things going on right now that I can’t explain or do anything about, and the church isn’t going to be a big help.”

 “What do you mean?”

 “Never mind... can we please just drop it?”

 The heavy silence from earlier returned with a vengeance. I stared out at the storm-darkened landscape as rain sheeted off the windows. We were almost to Lily’s house when a feeling of intense urgency washed over me. I gasped with the sudden wave of emotion. It was so strong that it took me a moment to figure out the source.

 “Take me to Fletcher’s house,” I said. My voice sounded strained even to me.

 “What? Who?”

 “Fletcher Snyder, Mom’s real dad. Please!” I begged. “Hurry!”

 “I don’t know where he lives.” My panic was contagious, and Dad was picking up on it even without understanding.

 I gave him directions as best I could, and, miraculously, he seemed to understand them. At my repeated urgings, he drove much too fast, especially considering the wet road, but the feeling of urgency just kept growing. By the time Fletcher’s house came into view, I was straining against my seat belt. I hadn’t known what to expect, but the sight of flashing lights in the front yard hit me like a physical blow.

 “Maybe we shouldn’t stop,” Dad suggested doubtfully.

 “Stop,” I ordered through clenched teeth.

 The van was still moving when I leapt out the door and started across the lawn. I noted Lily’s car parked haphazardly in the grass, as if she’d arrived here hurriedly and had tried to avoid blocking the ambulance. There was no one in the ambulance so I figured everyone was inside. With my heart in my throat, I headed for the front door.

 Just as I reached the bottom step, the door burst open and a uniformed EMT backed out wheeling the front end of a stretcher. My stomach dropped as I recognized Fletcher strapped to the immobilizer. As the stretcher continued to emerge through the door, I stared in horror at my grandfather. His eyes were closed and he looked very gray. He could have been dead for all I knew. Another EMT appeared at the other end of the stretcher. He noticed me as they maneuvered towards the steps.

 “Hey kid,” he said, “you’re going to have to move back so we can get by.”

 I obediently stepped back and watched as they carefully brought Fletcher down the stairs. “Is he going to be okay?”

 The technician who’d asked me to move looked over at me. “You family?” If his words seemed a bit gruff, his voice was kind.

 “He’s my grandfather,” I said, unable to tear my eyes from his ashen face.

 “He’s going to be all right. Your mom is inside on the phone,” he said. “Why don’t you go on in out of the rain? We’re going to take good care of your granddad.”

 I didn’t bother to correct his assumption about my relationship to Aunt Lily. I simply nodded and started backing towards the door, my eyes still never leaving Fletcher’s face.

 “Jacy?” Lily’s voice suddenly came from behind me. I turned to find her standing in the doorway, cell phone in hand. “What are you doing here?” She looked over my shoulder, and her expression grew even more confused. “Glen?” she asked.

 I glanced behind me to see Dad walking up behind me, umbrella in hand.

 “How’d you guys hear? I was just calling everyone.”

 “We didn’t get a phone call,” Dad said slowly, watching me with a mixture of wariness and respect.

 Lily looked back and forth between the two of us as understanding dawned. “It happened again?” she asked me.

 “It wasn’t the same,” I said with a frustrated shrug. I couldn’t explain it and I had other, more important things on my mind. “I just knew something was wrong. What happened? Is he okay?”

 “Come inside. You’re getting soaked.”

 “I was already wet,” I said, but I followed her inside anyway, Dad trailing behind me as if unsure of his welcome. 

 “They think Dad had a heart attack,” Lily said once we were all inside. “They don’t know how bad it was yet, or if there will be any permanent damage. They have to run a lot of tests, but they think he’ll be okay. I was just getting ready to go to the hospital. Do you want to come?”

 “Yes,” I answered without hesitation.

 “Jacy...” Dad began.

 “You can go home,” I told him quickly. “I’ll get my stuff out of the van.”

 “Are you sure?”

 “Yes.” I turned to Lily who was watching our exchange with narrowed eyes. “Is it okay if I leave my stuff here for now?”

 “Put it in my car and explain on the way,” she said, moving towards the door.

 Once more, we went out into the rain. The ambulance was just now pulling out of the driveway. I quickly retrieved my clothes and backpack from the van and tossed them into the back seat of Lily’s car, climbing in after them. Lily already had the car running so a teary goodbye scene with Dad was out of the questions. Not that it would have happened anyway.

 She peeled out of the driveway, leaving Dad standing on the side of the road with just his umbrella. “What happened?” she asked, keeping her eyes on the slick road.

 “I don’t know. I just felt like I had to get to Fletcher as quickly as possible.”

 “Not that. I know what happened there. What happened with that?” She jerked a thumb towards the back seat.

 “Oh. I got kicked out,” I said bitterly.

 “You what?”

 “Mom kicked me out. We had a fight, and I told her I knew she’d lied to me all these years about Fletcher...and that I was gay.”

 “Holy shit, kid! You’ve got balls, I’ll give you that. What brought all that on?”

 I told her about leaving church and running into Skye. She rolled her eyes at the mention of his name.

 “I should have known he was involved in this somewhere. Trouble follows that boy around like a puppy.”

 “It wasn’t really his fault. I made the decision to go with him.”

 She shook her head and I quickly finished the story. “So my sister threw you out,” she said with disapproval when I’d finished. “Unbelievable. She still manages to shock me after all these years. Where were you going?”

 “Your house?” I said sheepishly.

 She threw me look out of the corner of her eye. “Oh really?”

 I squirmed in my seat. “I’m sorry. If it’s not okay, I’ll...” I had no idea what I’d do. The idea scared me. I hadn’t even let myself think that far ahead.

 “You’ll what? Live on the street? Don’t be daft. Of course it’s okay. You’re family and I, for one, will not just turn you away. Besides, it’s partially my fault you’re even in this mess. I’m the one that told you about your grandfather. I just hadn’t planned on having kids at this stage of my life.”

 “You’re not that old.”

 She snorted. “Thank you for that back-handed compliment.”

 “What?”

 “Never mind.”

 “So it’s okay?”

 “Yes, Jacy. It’s fine.”

 We were quiet for a minute. Then I asked, “Will Fletcher really be okay?”

 She looked over at me. “I don’t know, Jacy. We can hope. He’s a strong man.”

 “The guy with the ambulance said he’d be all right.”

 She gave me a weak smile. “He’s the professional.”

 We arrived at the hospital a few minutes later and entered through the Emergency Room door. I’d never been in a hospital before, and it didn’t take me long to decide I didn’t like it at all. Just walking through the door made me feel dizzy. It was like walking into a solid wall of smell, sound, emotion, and pain—each of which was equally palpable.

 Lily went directly to the nurses’ station to ask about Fletcher. I tried to concentrate on what the nurse was telling her, but my head was spinning. I started to feel like I might get sick. I reached out for the counter but missed it and stumbled against the wall.

 “Jacy, are you okay?” I heard Lily asked, but it sounded like she was at the far end of a tunnel.

 I gasped for air, but everything was going black. The last thing I saw was the floor rushing towards me.

* * *

 I was standing in a bright meadow. Tall grass waved softly in a gentle breeze and sunlight warmed my bare shoulders. The sky was an impossible blue without a cloud in sight. I had no idea where I was, but somehow this didn’t bother me at all. I simply felt a sense of peace.

 “Hello, Jacy,” a voice said from behind me. I turned to find Fletcher, seated cross-legged on the ground. He patted a space beside him and I joined him.

 “Where are we?” I asked him.

 “We are in the dream world.”

 “So, this isn’t real?”

 “Oh, it’s quite real.”

 “I don’t understand.”

 “You will with time. I’ll teach you.”

 “So you’re not going to die?”

 He laughed a full, rich laugh. “Oh no! You’ll not get rid of me that easily.” He studied me for a few seconds. “You’re even stronger than I first thought if you found your way here on your own without even knowing it existed.” He grinned proudly. “Your first spirit journey!” His grin faded quickly to a frown. “But you need to learn to shield yourself.”

 “Shield myself? From what?”

 “You’re a strong empath. All true two-spirits are. Now you just have to learn to control your empathy. You’re going to have to shield against all the emotion and pain you feel in a place like the hospital.”

 “How do I do that?”

 “Keep one foot firmly planted here in this place,” he said with a smile.

 “I don’t understand.”

 “Don’t worry. You don’t need to understand. You’ll just know.” He clapped his hands together with anticipation. “Now, it’s time to see your spirit animal. Stand up!”

 I jumped to my feet just as a shadow began to ripple across the surface of the grass. I looked up to see a huge gray owl swooping in on us. Instead of being startled, I simply felt a quickening of my heartbeat and a sense of recognition. The magnificent bird flew around me twice. “Put out your arm,” Fletcher instructed me. I did as he said and the owl settled gingerly onto my forearm. His weight barely even registered as my hair blew back from the wind created by his beating wings. His round, yellow eyes found mine, and everything else just seemed to fade away.

***

 Waking up in a hospital bed and not knowing how I got there was quite a disorienting experience. I remembered arriving at the hospital, and feeling overwhelmed, but I didn’t remember anything after that. I gingerly sat up and looked around. I was in a sort of cubicle with walls on three sides and a curtain across the front. There was only one bed in the small room, and I was in it. I glanced down and was relieved to see I was still wearing my clothes at least.

 The cacophony of stimuli had receded. It was still there, but muted.  I swung my legs over the side of the bed and prepared to hop down, but at that moment the curtain was yanked aside. I jumped and let out a startled yelp. An equally startled young Asian woman in blue scrubs stared in at me as if I’d lost my mind.

 “I see you’re awake now, Mister...” She paused and consulted the chart she held in her hand. “...Elliott.” She made it sound like I’d taken a little nap instead of passing out in the middle of the floor. "I'm Dr. Kim. How are you feeling?"

 “I'm fine. Where’s my aunt?”

 She glanced down at her chart again, then back up at me. “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you right after I do a few quick tests to make sure you’re okay.”

 “Really, I’m fine,” I said. I didn’t want to do any tests, I just wanted to find Lily and see how Fletcher was doing.

 “Maybe you can just answer a few quick questions,” she plowed on. “Have you ever fainted before?”

 “No, but I promise I’m fine. If I could just see my aunt...”

 “When was the last time you ate?”

 I stopped to think. Now that she mentioned it, I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. “Early this morning,” I said. “See, that’s all it is, I haven’t eaten today. I’ll just go find my aunt and I’ll get something to eat.”

 She sighed, finally seeming to give in. “Okay, wait right here and I’ll go see if I can find you aunt...” Another chart consultation provided her name. “...Ms. Lily Snyder.” I wondered what she’d do if she lost that chart. “You stay put and I’ll be right back.” She pulled the curtain closed as she left, ever thoughtful of my privacy.

 I waited exactly five seconds before I was off the bed and cautiously sticking my head out the curtain. The good doctor was nowhere in sight, so I slipped into the hallway. A nurse was just coming out of another cubicle, so I asked her for directions to the waiting room. She pointed distractedly towards the end of the hall and a pair of swinging doors. I walked swiftly in that direction, only to find that the doors were not your typical swinging doors. I pushed tentatively against one, but nothing happened.

 “You have to use this button,” another nurse said as she walked up briskly behind me and smacked a large flat stainless steel button on the wall. The doors swung open, one inward and one outward. Of course, I was in front of the one that swung inward, causing me to jump back out of the way.

 I quickly followed her through the doors and into the waiting room. I immediately spotted Lily sitting in a chair on the far side of the room staring blindly at the TV in the corner, her chin propped on her fist. She glanced up as I approached. She jumped to her feet and pulled me against her for a hug.

 “Are you all right?” she asked. “I hadn’t heard anything since you passed out.”

 “I’m fine,” I said, not mentioning my jailbreak. “And I'm really getting tired of saying that over and over. More importantly, how’s Fletcher?”

 “They’re still doing tests,” she said, sinking wearily back into her seat. I sat in the chair next to hers. “So what happened with you? Do they know why you fainted?”

 I shrugged. “I haven’t eaten today.” I wasn’t ready to talk about the inundation of pain and emotion I’d felt.

 She frowned. “Maybe we should run to the gift shop. They have a little restaurant in there.”

 “Would it still be open?” I asked. I wasn’t really hungry, but I figured I should probably eat something before it really did become a problem.

 She glanced at her watch. “I don’t know. I’ll go ask.”

 “Ms. Snyder? Lily Snyder?” Someone called before she could stand up.

 Lily’s head snapped around. “Right here,” she said loudly. I turned to find the doctor who’d questioned me back in the room.

 “Ms. Snyder, your nephew is awake now...” she began before spotting me. She pursed her lips and gave me a disapproving look. “But I see you knew that already.”

 “We were just going to see about getting him something to eat,” Lily said.

 She nodded primly. “That’s probably the best thing. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

 “Is the restaurant still open?”

 She checked her watch. “Yes.”

 “Thank you,” Lily said.

 Lily checked at the nurse’s station before we left, but there was still no news. We went to the gift shop where I managed to force down half a turkey sandwich. Lily simply picked at my plate of french-fries. After a while, we both gave up the pretense of eating and simply threw the remaining food away.

 We returned to the waiting room where, naturally, we waited. And waited. Time seemed to drag by. The TV flickered soundlessly in the corner, providing little distraction. I couldn’t seem to focus on the outdated and tattered magazines.

 Somehow, I’d managed to shield myself from the worst of the waves of emotion. I could still feel them pummeling against my shaky bulwark, but, so far, it held. While I had no idea how I’d done it, I was quite relieved. Lily offered little in the way of conversation, and I wasn’t exactly chatty myself. Eventually, boredom overcame my tension and I began to doze, drifting in and out of a light sleep.

 I awoke from one of these brief, restless naps with a start. My eyes were immediately drawn to the wrinkled face of an old woman sitting on a chair diagonally across from me. She was intent on the knitting she held in her lap. Her gnarled, age-spotted hands worked diligently with the soft yarn and needles, creating a beautiful scarf. I’d seen her face in my dreams just moments before. I knew more about her than I wanted to know. She was dying. Her body was full of cancer. I wondered if she knew.

 As if she sensed me watching her, she looked up, and her pale blue eyes found mine. She looked at me for a few seconds, then gave me a small smile. She knew. I smiled back.

 “Ms. Snyder?” someone said. I turned to find a distinguished looking middle-aged man in a white coat. His black hair and dark complexion bespoke his Indian heritage—Indian as in from India, though, not Native American. “I’m Dr. Sahni. I’m a cardiologist and I’ve been running the tests on your father.”

 “How is he?” Lily asked.

 “He’s going to be fine. It seems he experienced a mild heart attack, but there doesn’t appear to be any permanent damage.”

 “Oh thank God.” Her shoulders slumped with relief, and I released a breath I hadn’t even known I’d been holding.

 “However, he will have to change some of his habits. You’re tired right now, though, and we can talk about that later. He’s stable for the night, but you can go in and see him briefly. After that, why don’t you go on home? You both need your rest.”

 “Is it all right if my nephew comes in with me?” she asked, gesturing towards me.

 The doctor nodded, noticing me for the first time. “Just keep it brief. When you get here in the morning, just ask the nurses at the station to let me know, and I’ll come explain everything to both of you at the same time.”

 Lily thanked him and stood up. He told us where to find Fletcher and pointed us in the direction of the elevators.

 As we rode the elevator up to Fletcher’s floor, I took a good look at Lily. Her relief was visible, but she suddenly looked very tired and worn, as if the adrenaline that had been keeping her going had suddenly run out.

 “You were really worried.” I sounded more accusatory than I’d intended.

 She gave me a tired smile. “He’s old, Jacy. I forget that sometimes. He seems so strong. You haven’t known him long enough to understand what I mean, but this was kind of a rude awakening for me. Seeing him like that...”

 “You thought he was invincible?”

 She gave me a surprised look as the doors slid open. She didn’t answer, just stepped out and led the way down the hall. A nurse stopped us with an offer to help that was really just a polite way of making sure we belonged here on this floor. Lily told her what room we were looking for and what Dr. Sahni had told us, and she showed us to Fletcher's door.

 As we stepped into the room I realized I was holding my breath. I didn’t know what to expect. What would Fletcher look like? What kinds of tests had they done? Would he have machines hooked up to him like they always did on TV? I trailed behind Lily, who didn’t hesitate a second.

 Fletcher was lying in the twin to the bed I’d woken up in earlier. They’d given him a private room so he was the only person in the room. A blanket was pulled up to his chest, and his arms lay at his side. His eyes were closed, his pale face expressionless and his long white hair splayed out on the pillow as if it had been arranged. If not for the steady rise and fall of his chest, he could have been dead. I shuddered at that thought. There were other signs that he was alive. An IV fed into his hand and some wires trailed out from under his hospital gown and attached to what I recognized as a heart monitor. A reassuring zigzag made its way across the screen.

 Lily walked to the side of his bed and laid her hand lightly on his. His eyes opened immediately at her touch. He smiled up at her, then searched the room until he found me. How did he even know I was there? Then decided that maybe he wasn’t actually looking for me, but was just checking to see if anyone else was in the room.

 “I didn’t mean to wake you,” Lily said in a hushed voice.

 “You didn’t,” he said. His voice sounded a little weak, but stronger than I had expected. “I was waiting for you and Jacy.” So he did know.

 “Well, we’re here now, but we can’t stay long—doctor’s orders. We’ll be back tomorrow though. Dr. Sahni said he’d explain everything then. I’m just so glad...” Lily’s voice caught and she stopped in mid sentence.

 “The old man’s here for a little longer, Lily,” he said and squeezed her hand. “So stop worrying. I still have some things left to do yet. Right, Jacy?”

 I blinked in surprise. Why was he asking me?

 “Now you two get going and get some rest. It’s late and if I know my daughter at all, she’ll want to be here as soon as visiting hours begin.”

 Lily grinned. “You know me too well.” She leaned down and tenderly kissed his forehead. “See you in the morning.”

 “See you then,” he said. He turned to me and winked. “You too, Gray Owl.”

 The name sparked a vague memory of a dream I’d had while I was unconscious. At least, I thought it was a dream. Once in the elevator, Lily turned to me with a curious expression.

 “What was that about?” she asked.

 “What do you mean?” I responded, knowing full well what she was asking about.

 “Gray Owl?”

 I shrugged. “I’m not sure.”

 She gave me a look that clearly said I knew more than I was saying, but she was letting it go.

 I slept in Lily’s spare bedroom that night. Or maybe I should say I stayed in her spare bedroom, since I didn’t do much sleeping. Elmo kept me company, but the super sized dog weighed more than I did and took up more than his share of the bed. Still, I wasn’t complaining. It was nice to have some company even if it was of the canine variety. It was strange being away from home and my familiar surroundings, knowing I wouldn’t be going back. If that wasn’t enough to keep me awake, I had more than enough to think about. Between my epiphany in church, kissing Skye, my spontaneous outing of myself to my family, Fletcher’s heart attack, and my strange dream, my poor brain didn’t know what to settle on first. It was a long night.

 The next morning, I drank several cups of coffee before we left for the hospital, even though I usually never touch the stuff. Lily raised an eyebrow as I dumped cream and sugar into my third cup in an effort to disguise the taste.

 “Why bother?” she asked, taking another sip from her mug. She took hers black.

 “I didn’t sleep much,” I told her.

 She nodded. “That’s understandable considering the circumstances. I didn’t sleep well myself. Did Elmo snore?”

 “A little,” I said, looking down to where he lay on the floor, his recently emptied food dish between his paws. He looked up at us as if he knew we were talking about him. “But it was nice to have him there anyway.”

 “He’s taken a liking to you. Not to say the big lug doesn’t like everybody, but I’ve never seen him take to anyone the way he has to you. I think last night was the first time he’s ever not spent the night in my bed with me.”

 I smiled sardonically. At least somebody wants to be with me. Take that, Skye.

 “We’d better get going,” Lily said after a few minutes of comfortable silence.

 I glanced at the clock on the wall. “Visiting hours won’t start for an hour. It takes less than half an hour to get there. What are we going to do for half an hour?”

 She just gave me a look, and I gave in without further argument.

 We stopped in the gift shop on our way up to his room and picked up a crossword book and a few magazines. “If he has to stay here any length of time he’s going to be bored out of his skull,” Lily commented.

 Once on his floor, the nurses at the station were nice enough to let us in a little early after checking to make sure he was ready to receive visitors. Lily sent word with one of the nurses to let Dr. Sahni know we were there.

 Fletcher looked much better this morning. Much of his color was back, and he seemed to be in high spirits. We chatted while we waited for the doctor. Lily told him that I’d moved out of my parents’ and was staying with her. He didn’t seem surprised in the least.

 We didn’t have to wait too long before the doctor joined us. He quickly explained what had happened to Fletcher, using layman’s terms so we could easily understand. He’d had a mild heart attack brought on by high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

 “You’re going to need to change some of your eating habits,” he told Fletcher. “You need to watch your salt intake, and we’re also going to put you on some medications that should help lower you blood pressure and cholesterol levels.”

 “Can we look into natural herbal treatments?” Fletcher asked. Dr. Sahni looked surprised, so Fletcher explained. “I’m an herbalist.”

 The doctor nodded. “We can certainly look into that if you’re strongly opposed to using pharmaceuticals. I’m not one of those doctors who pooh-poohs alternative medicine. As an herbalist, however, I would expect you to understand the importance of eating the right kinds of food. You also need to be checked more regularly. According to your charts, you haven’t seen a doctor in almost five years.”

 “Haven’t needed to up till now,” he responded with a twinkle in his eye.

 “If you had, maybe we could have prevented this heart attack,” Dr. Sahni replied sternly. “It’s nothing to joke around with. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among Native Americans. Consider this episode your warning. Your body is telling you to start taking care of it, or it won’t hold up forever.”

 Fletcher nodded a little more seriously. “You’re right. I understand that I need to start taking more care of myself. I spend so much time looking after the welfare of others that I tend to neglect myself.”

 “Unfortunately, that’s a common problem among healers.” I was impressed that Dr Sahni seemed to be giving Fletcher the consideration of an equal. The doctor continued, “You also need to quit smoking.” I hadn’t even known he smoked.

 Fletcher’s eyes narrowed at this. “Tobacco is considered sacred to my people.”

 “Yes, but cigarettes contain over 599 other additives, many of which are harmful, and none of which, to my knowledge, are sacred to your people.”

 Fletcher grinned. “You’ve got me there. How about if we compromise? I’ll give up cigarettes but I can still smoke tobacco in rituals.”

 Dr. Sahni grinned. “I’ll accept that deal on one condition.”

 “What’s that?”

 “That you don’t suddenly start having to perform ‘rituals’ several times a day.”

 Fletcher laughed out loud and held out his hand, which the doctor shook. “I like you, Dr. Sahni,” he said.

 “Likewise, Mr. Snyder, but you might want to withhold judgment until I’m finished. I have one more recommendation to make, and you might not like me so much after this one.” He paused, for effect more than anything. “I don’t want you living alone any longer.”

 I think we all expected Fletcher to put up a fight on this one, but he surprised us all by winking coyly at the doctor. “Why, Dr. Sahni, we’ve only just met and you already want to move in?”

 For a moment, we were all completely caught off guard. Then I broke the silence with a snort of laughter. Dr. Sahni and Lily quickly joined in, and finally Fletcher gave up his little act and laughed along with us.

 Once the laughter had died down, Dr. Sahni became serious again. “You really shouldn’t be living alone. The next time you may not be able to get to the phone to call your daughter. You need someone who can be there to keep an eye on you.”

 “I understand what you’re saying, Doctor, but I don’t have anyone, and I can’t afford—nor do I want—a live-in nurse.”

 “You’re not that bad off that you need round-the-clock attention. What about your children?”

 “They all have families and careers of their own. They don’t need to be burdened with an old man.”

 “You wouldn’t be a burden,” Lily inserted. “You can stay with me. I have plenty of room at my house.”

 “I have my herbal business to run,” Fletcher insisted stubbornly. “And I don’t want to leave my home. You certainly can’t leave yours. You have your studio all set up there.”

 “I could live with Fletcher,” I said suddenly, and everyone turned to look at me. “What?” I asked, trying not to blush under all the attention.

 “I don’t know, Jacy,” Lily began. “No offense, but I don’t know if having a sixteen year old in the house is exactly what the doctor ordered. And you’d be in school all day so it would almost defeat the purpose. And...”

 While Lily was talking, Fletcher watched me with an inscrutable Mona Lisa smile set on his lips. When she paused to take a breath, he quickly stepped in. “And,” he interrupted smoothly, “I think it’s the perfect solution.”

 “I think I’ll leave you to work out the details in private,” Dr. Sahni said quickly, before Lily could respond. “I have some other patients to attend to, but I’ll try to drop in later this morning to check on you, Mr. Snyder.”

 We all said good-bye and thanked him for taking the time to talk to us. Once he was gone, Lily picked up where we’d left off. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, Fletcher? It’s been a long time since you’ve had a kid in the house.” It was her polite way of pointing out that Fletcher had not raised any of his children. He’d left Grandma Allen when his kids were still pretty young.  Fletcher, of course, knew exactly what she meant.

 “No, I’ve never lived with a teenager,” he said good-naturedly, “but I’ve been around enough to know what I’d be getting myself into. Besides, Jacy seems like an above-average example of the species. More importantly, however, I have a lot to teach him. That could be done if he was living somewhere else, but it will be a lot easier on both of us if we’re under the same roof.”

 “You could both just move in with me. I have so much room...”

 “Lily, you’re a beautiful young woman. Don’t you think having an old man and a teenage boy in the house might put a crimp in your love life?”

 Lily blushed slightly. “What love life? There’s nothing to crimp.”

 “And there certainly wouldn’t be if we both moved in with you. I appreciate the offer, but I think Jacy’s idea makes the most sense.”

 Lily shook her head, but we all knew the decision had been made. They were both obstinate people, but in a battle of wills, it was clear that Fletcher would win. She turned to me. “Are you sure you’re up for this, Jacy?”

 I nodded. It felt right somehow, as if this was what I’d been working towards for the last few weeks...or maybe all my life.

 “Then it’s decided,” Fletcher said with a triumphant grin. “Jacy can move in with me as soon as they free me from this damn hospital.” I couldn’t help grinning back at him. Lily shook her head again, but even her lips were twitching as she watched the two of us grinning at each other like idiots.

 “At least you won’t be alone,” she said.

 “No, never alone,” Fletcher agreed.

 

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